Saturday, December 26, 2015

What is the Next Frontier in 3D Printing?

During its early days, 3D printing (also known as additive manufacturing) was mainly considered a rapid prototyping process. It provided people a convenient way to prototype complex shapes. Over the last twenty years, the popularity of 3D printing has grown tremendously and it is now being used in a wide variety of applications. Here is a representative list:

Production Parts: People are now making production parts using 3D printing. It enables production of complex custom shapes without requiring specialized tooling. This offers designers a much wider variety of shapes and significantly cuts down the lead time. Geometric shape flexibility afforded by 3D printing can be used to reduce weight and reduce the part count in the product. Famous examples of this category include fuel nozzles in engines and custom hearing aids.

3D Printed Fuel Nozzle for Engine (Image Source

Example of a 3D Printed Hearing Aid (Image Source:
Biologically Inspired Robots: 3D printing enables manufacturing of biologically inspired robots that have complex shapes and mechanisms to realize biologically inspired locomotion and manipulation.

R2G2: A 3D Printed Robot Developed by My Student James Hopkins that Uses a High Speed Rectilinear Gait
Cars: 3D printing is being used to fabricate the body and structural members of the custom cars. 

Local Motors 3D Printed a Car (Image Source:
Prosthesis: 3D printing has been used to create hand prosthesis because of its ability to offer custom designs to fit the patient's size and needs. 

Examples of 3D Printed Hand Prosthesis (Image Source:
Molds and Dies: It used to take months to make molds and dies used in popular mass production processes such as injection molding and die casting. The use of 3D printing has reduced the mold making time to few days. 3D printing is able to incorporate internal features in the molds that significantly improve cooling time and hence improve the performance of the molding process. 

Example of 3D Printed Insert for Injection Mold (Image Source:
Chocolates: 3D printing is now being used to produce custom chocolates. There are many other products in the food sector that are being considered as potential candidates for 3D printing. 3D printing can faithfully reproduce complex intricate shapes and offer novel food textures. 

A Chocolate Printed on ChefJet Pro Printer (Image Source:
Biological Organs: Technologies inspired by 3D printing are being explored to create biological organs such as kidneys and ears. 

3D Printed Ear that Fuses Biological and Electronic Parts (Image Source:
Drugs: 3D printing can be used to produce fast dissolving drugs to speed up absorption in the body.
Example of a Fast Dissolving Drug from Aprecia Pharmaceuticals (Image Source:
Buildings: Large 3D printers are being built that can print entire buildings.

A Large 3D Printer for Printing Buildings (Image Source:
Sculptures: Artists have also embraced 3D printing. They can use it to make new sculptures quickly and explore shapes that would have been almost impossible to sculpt manually. General public can also use 3D printing to print copies of famous sculptures at home.
Example of a 3D Printed Sculpture (Image Source:
Education: The uses of physical models can be of tremendous help in explaining complex concepts in geometry, molecular structures in chemistry and biology. 3D printing is being used to create physical models to enrich the educational experience. 
3D Printed Models to Explain Geodesic Spheres (Image Source:
Entertainment and Recreation: This industry is also utilizing 3D printing to innovate and pursue new creative avenues. Marketplaces are emerging to enable people to buy and sell 3D printed toys.
Example of a Toy that can be 3D Printed (Image Source:
Clothing: Visionary designers are creating 3D printed clothes. This is not yet a mainstream trend. However, as wearable technologies get integrated into clothes, 3D printed clothes might start gaining momentum.
Example of Dress Created by Michael Schmidt Studio (Image Source:
Jewelry: 3D printing is well suited for making custom jewelry and gaining popularity in the jewelry industry. 

Example of 3D Printed Jewelry from Artizan Work (Image Source:
What is the next frontier in 3D printing? Here are my thoughts:
  • The current generation of 3D printing technologies has focused on offering flexibility in geometry. The next generation 3D printers are expected to offer many more choices in material. Once we have the freedom to select the material of our choice, the design space will expand and we should be able to realize novel products.
  • Setting up traditional manufacturing factory in space will be hard. 3D printing will be an attractive option for manufacturing in space or other planets.
  • A 3D printer that can replicate itself will revolutionize manufacturing.
I am interested in hearing your thoughts about the next frontier in 3D printing.