It’s hard to believe that 3D printing (or, more accurately, additive manufacturing) is 36 years old. It feels like such a modern innovation, like a science-fiction dream come true. Over the last decade, 3D printing has been used to create everything from complete chess sets and working survival whistles, all the way to artificial stents for use in heart surgery. Even so, that is the tip of the iceberg. What the future holds for the application of 3D printing is even more exciting.
The development of the 3D printed heart valve stent was rightly lauded as a major milestone for the technology, and it is only fitting that medical applications are at the forefront of this current wave of innovation in the industry. Work has already begun on the production of highly detailed models of the human body, accurate to the most minute detail, to be used in medical schools as training tools for their students. With a sharp decline in the number of people donating their bodies to medical science, it has been the practice in recent years for students to practise on digital simulations. Marrying this software with new developments in 3D printing will allow trainee doctors to operate in a physical environment. As the cost of production decreases, this means that medical students will be able to get their hands on a facsimile of the human body earlier on in their courses, maximising their training in a practical situation.
The benefits for medicine and healthcare doesn’t end at graduation. 3D printing using organic material is being trialled, which will enable working artificial organs to be created which run no risk of infection, or of rejection by the patient’s body. There are even experiments to create 3D printing bones for transplants, and fully functioning artificial skin to treat burn victims.
Less invasive procedures are also being worked out. Printed dentures have been around for a while, but Dutch researchers from the University of Groningen are developing an application that will produce a 3D tooth made from an antimicrobial plastic that will destroy the bacteria responsible for tooth decay.
From a way to prevent tooth decay, to one of the main causes of it. Work is afoot on creating 3D printed models made from granulated sugar, which could lead to intricate edible centrepieces for weddings and parties, or sugar sculptures of local landmarks for sale by the tourist industry (imagine biting down on a peppermint Stonehenge, or a barley sugar replica of the London Eye).
If sweet treats sound a little pedestrian, let’s take to the roads. 3D printing has been used for car design and prototypes for years, but in the future it will be used as much for production. Even small developments, such as 3D printed screws and bolts, can drastically reduce the weight of a car, improving both speed and fuel efficiency. Printed polymers are also incredibly strong, far more so than most metals. Engineers are utilising this combination of lightness and strength, together with a process known as topographical optimisation, to develop crush-resistant roofs for vehicles, capable of sustaining up to four times the weight of the car in a crash situation. Not only this, but 3D printing could be set to take up a big role in the world of motorsports. F1 team McLaren printed car parts trackside at the Bahrain Grand Prix, so that they could radically alter their tactics on the fly.
From the doctor’s surgery and the sweet shop down the road, straight back to the family home. Earlier this year, 3D printing specialists from Russia printed an entire house, giving us a peek into the future of home construction. The whole process, from start to finish, took 24 hours, and cost the company less than £8,000 in materials. With the world population at an all-time high, the prospect of a cheap, quick and efficient way of providing housing may be the most impressive thing of all.
ASL Group is a managed document solutions company, that streamlines and improves the print operations of its clients: http://asl-group.co.uk/