by Dorothy Dobbie
Six years ago, a 3D printer would have set you back $100,000 to $300,000 to make a flimsy prototype from a waxy material. Today, 3D printers are available as desktop printers for the price of a good computer and materials can vary from living cells to gold and titanium. You can even use a 3D printer to make another one for a friend.
Gutenberg opened up a Pandora’s box of opportunity when he invented the printing press, but he could never have foreseen what it would all come to six centuries later. Not only did his new machine sow the seeds of universal knowledge by bringing the printed word to the masses, today’s version of printing is opening up an entirely new universe of product and possibility.
While we are still a long way from sending a printed version of ourselves to a different location (as in the teleporters of science fiction), 3D printers are being used to manufacture a whole new world of products from trifles such as jewelry to major aircraft parts. Much more is on the design table.
In the aerospace industry, Airbus has a goal of making its aircraft from the ground up using 3D printing technology. Recently, a Chinese manufacturer, part of the Northwestern Polytechnical University, has created a 3D printed titanium wing spar that is light-weight but strong. The part will be assembled in a Comac C191 passenger plane to go into service in 2016. Boeing, too, is using 3D printing to create parts such air ducts on the F-18 that makes the plane lighter than its predecessors. Parts of the fuselage for the new Dreamliner are also reported to have been 3D printed.
3D pritned products are cost effective because subtractive manufacturing can waste up to 90 per cent of the raw material needed for a product and sometimes the off cuts are not reusable by the industry. Additive manufacturing, on the other hand, can make the same part using only 10 per cent of the materiel with no waste. Not only that, but the products are light weight. They don’t require bolts or flanges or welds that add to the weight and can compromise strength.
Another advantage is that 3D printing allows for better design with no right angles, meaning flowable materials can move faster and more smoothly through the parts.
Technology not that old
3D printing has been around since the 1980s, but it is only in the last handful of years that its possibilities have been expanded. In the early days, 3D products were generally plastic and made of one material. Then, the ability to add colour was added. In 2006, technology was improved so that multiple materials could be used in the process. Two years later, the first self-replicating printer was created. It allows users who already have one to make more printers for their friends.
Winnipeg at the forefront
Winnipeg manufacturers and inventors are taking the technology seriously. Manitoba’s Kor Ecologic has designed a gas-electric hybrid automobile, the first in the world. Called the Urbee, the car’s body has been 3D printed by Minneapolis-based Stratasys, using what they are calling Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM). The two-passenger car is incredibly fuel-efficient.
Another Winnipeg company with worldwide sales is making guns using similar technology. Winnipeg’s Orthopedic Innovation Centre in the Concordia Hip and Knee Institute do 3D laser scanning and additive manufacturing of bio-medical products for joints. Many of the members of Manitoba’s Life Sciences Association are examining other products. The Industrial Technology Centre is actively promoting the use of additive manufacturing in the province.
Number 10 Architectural Group in Winnipeg has used 3D printing to make prototype models of its architectural designs for quite some time. Clothing, shoes, jewelry and novelties of all kinds are being made on desktop printers.
There is scarcely an industry now that is not thinking about, planning to use or using the technology in one way or another.
Building live body parts
At the experimental stage right now is the ability to print skin to ease the suffering of burn patients. Live animal testing on skin manufacturing and transplanting will begin later this year. The technology uses live tissue cells from rats and its application on humans is only a matter of time, according to Lian Leng, a PhD student at the University of Toronto, who is working on a prototype skin-making machine now.
Live tissue printing machines are being used to create veins and blood vessel networks and other body parts in a way that is precisely dictated by the patient. While dense organs, such as hearts, are not yet being 3D printed, bladders are being made from your own tissues. This resolves the complex issue of organ rejection. Personal hip replacement, where the ball is permanently inside the socket, is another exciting breakthrough.
There is a tremendous shortage of donor kidneys, so the art of printing kidneys from models scanned directly from the recipient patient is getting a lot of support. The Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine has been printing kidneys for some time now. They have also printed bladders and other human organs. To see this for yourself, click here.
Food production is still another area under study. Bio-printed chocolates are already on the market. PayPal co-founder and venture capitalist, Peter Thiel, recently invested $350,000 in a small U.S. start-up company, Modern Meadow, which believes it can revolutionize the meat industry by printing artificial raw meat.
The home 3D printer
The process is not exclusively available to big players.
You can have your own 3D printer for as little as $500 to $1,500 for home use or a more elaborate setup for about $3,000 to make professional or other parts. The Cube 3D printer is one model that offers the ability to work with multi-coloured plastics as the building material.
It is hard to predict with precision what effects 3D printing will have on the future. There are clues, however. Given that the technology is available for personal use, it is logical to conclude that we are not far from the time when we can personally replace many of the things we use day to day.
Additive manufacturing is expected to grow at 29.4 per cent year over year with sales expected to reach $3.7 billion by 2015 and $6.5 billion by 2019.
In the U.S., the $30 million National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Institute has been set up to advance 3D printing. In Canada, the $920 million SMART program, funded by FedDev, Canada’s Federal Economic Development Agency for Southern Ontario, has set aside $18-plus million in pursuit of a similar objective.
It might not be an overstatement to say that we are on the brink of an industrial revolution just as profound as the one that took place 200 years ago.
The principle of 3D printing has been around for a long time and has gained momentum since the 1980s. It is based on the same principles as ink jet printing, where a printer nozzle sprays material in thin layers to build the product based on information obtained from scanners and computer-imaging of a three dimensional model or from design data.
Industrially 3D printing is also called additive manufacturing. Up until now, products have been made by so-called “subtractive” methods, where materials had to be cut and shaped and formed by all sorts of methods such as grinding, forging, milling, sewing, riveting, screwing, gluing and/or welding parts together. This was wasteful and expensive.
In bio-printing, live cells and stem cells are fused onto a predetermined design or scaffold and then naturally fused into the living organ.