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Imagine a future in which a device connected to a computer can print a solid object. A future in which we can have tangible goods as well as intangible services delivered to our desktops or highstreet shops over the Internet. And a future in which the everyday “atomization” of virtual objects into hard reality has turned the mass pre-production and stock-holding of a wide range of goods and spare parts into no more than an historical legacy.

Such a future may sound like it is being plucked from the worlds of Star Trek. However, while transporter devices that can instantaneously deliver us to remote locations may remain a fantasy, 3D printers capable of outputting physical objects have been in both development and application for over three decades, and are now starting to present a whole host of new digital manufacturing capabilities. 3D printing may therefore soon do for manufacturing what computers and the Internet have already done for the creation, processing and storage of information. Such a possibility has also started to capture mainstream media attention.

The following provides an overview of 3D printing technologies and their present and likely future application.

Current 3D Printing Applications

Most current 3D printers are not used to create final consumer products. Rather, they are generally employed for rapid product prototyping, or to produce moulds or mould masters that will in turn allow the production of final items. Such printing of 3D objects already enables engineers to check the fit of different parts long before they commit to costly production, architects to show detailed and relatively low-cost scale models to their clients, and medical professionals or archaeologists to handle full-size, 3D copies of bones printed from 3D scan data. There are also a wide range of educational uses.

The range of products that have employed 3D printers in their design process or to produce final moulds or mould masters is constantly growing. To date such products include automobiles, trainers, jewellery, plastic toys, coffee makers, and all sorts of plastic bottles, packaging and containers. More usefully, some dental labs have for some years been using 3D printers to help create appliances, for use in the creation of crowns, bridges and temporaries by dental technicians. Using this technology, even long-term temporaries can now be created, meaning that 3D printers can quite literally already print you new teeth! 3D printers are now also widely used by many major hearing aid manufacturers to produce ear moulds and shells for final consumer use.

Medical uses of 3D printing:

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Direct Digital Manufacturing

3d printing concertWhile most 3D printers are currently used for prototyping and in pre-production mould making processes, the use of 3D printing to manufacture end-use parts is also now occurring. This is becoming known as direct digital manufacturing (DDM), for low-volume manufacturing DDM is more cost-effective and simpler than having to pay and wait for machining or tooling, with on-the-fly design changes and just-in-time inventory being possible.

Many believe that 3D printers have a great future in the creation of fashion items including jewellery and shoes. For example, with injection moulding set to give way to 3D printing to allow maufacture-on-demand and higher levels of customization. You can see even more 3D printed shoes.

It is also already not just a few specialist plastic items that are being made using a 3D printer. For example, engineers at the University of Southampton recently 3D printed a flyable aircraft (well, aside from its electric motor). A driveable prototype of a new electric car called the Urbee has also been 3D printed. Mainstream automobile makes are also already in on the DDM act, with Audi now 3D printing parts of its cars using Objet Polyjet 3D printers.

Some artists are now also using DDM to create their masterpieces. For example, sculptor Bathsheba Grossman already uses 3D printers to create her works. In the future, museums could also print out exhibits as required from their own digital collection — something that the Smithsonian is already working on — or indeed from a global archive of artworks scanned from long-lost or too-delicate-to-display originals.

 Future 3D Printing Applications

Whether or not they arrive en-mass in the home, 3D printers have many promising areas of potential future application. They may, for example, be used to output spare parts for all manner of products, and which could not possibly be stocked as part of the inventory of even the best physical store. Hence, rather than throwing away a broken item (something unlikely to be justified a decade or two hence due to resource depletion and enforced recycling), faulty goods will be able to be taken to a local facility that will call up the appropriate spare parts online and simply print them out. NASA has already tested a 3D printer on the International Space Station, and recently announced its requirement for a high resolution 3D printer to produce spacecraft parts during deep space missions. The US Army has also experimented with a truck-mounted 3D printer capable of outputting spare tank and other vehicle components in the battlefield.

As noted above, 3D printers may also be used to make future buildings. To this end, a team at Loughborough University is working on a 3D concrete printing project that could allow large building components to be 3D printed on-site to any design, and with improved thermal properties.

The following video is a good example of 3D printing on the construction site:

Another possible future application is in the use of 3D printers to create replacement organs for the human body. This is known as bioprinting and is an area of rapid development. You can learn more on the bioprinting page, or see more in my bioprinting video or the Future Visions gallery.

A Solid Tomorrow3d printing building

In an age in which the news, books, music, video and even our communities are all the subjects of digital dematerialization, the development and application of 3D printing reminds us that human beings have both a physical and a psychological need to keep at least one foot in the real world. 3D printing has a bright future, not least in rapid prototyping (where its impact is already highly significant), but also in the manufacture of many kinds of plastic and metal objects, in medicine, in the arts, and in outer space. Desktop 3D printers for the home are already a reality, and should cost no more than a few hundred dollars by 2015. 3D printers capable of outputting in color and multiple materials also exist and will continue to improve to a point where functional products will be able to be output. As devices that will provide a solid bridge between cyberspace and the physical world — and as an important manifestation of the Second Digital Revolution — 3D printing is therefore likely to play some part in all of our futures.

For a fascinating glimpse at a wide range of amazing and unusual printers — including concrete printers, glass printers, bioprinters, and printers that print on toast! — click here.

Welcome to the world of 3D Printing: The Next Industrial Revolution

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