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3D printing is exactly what it sounds like. The process of 3D printing uses additive manufacturing and sculpts an object layer by layer, after being modeled on a computer. Objects can be printed using a variety of materials including plastic, metal, and biomaterial. 3D printing can also be used to make a copy of an already existing object, using a 3D scanner.
Many industries use 3D printing. One of the most common functions is rapid prototyping. Designers are able to utilize the technology to print a single version of a product and continue to make changes until it is correct. The speed at which designers are able to modify a product is one of the most advantageous aspects of 3D printing. As well, the cost associated with printing a single object is lower than having to manufacture several at a time. Architects benefit from the speed of 3D printing because they are able to model a design for a house, and make changes before it gets built to scale.
Some architects are using the technology on a larger scale to print out walls to construct life size houses and buildings. The printers print with cement and are able build an entire house in a day. The use of 3D printing allows for a cost effective mass manufacturing of houses without compromising the structural integrity.
There are two main applications for 3D printing in the healthcare industry. The first is to create custom prosthetics, and other physical medical devices. The benefits of using this technology have drastically reduced the costs of creating prosthetic limbs. It has also allowed prosthetics to become more personalized because the doctors are able to model the prosthetic specifically to the patients’ body. They are able to print limbs that are more realistic, durable, and advanced thanks to 3D printing technology. Doctors are able to print other custom medical necessities such as braces and supports for short term use, and dentists can print crowns for teeth. This technology has been used to benefit humans as well as animals who have lost limbs, beaks, or fins.
The second healthcare application of 3D printing is bioprinting. Researchers can create tissues in a lab using bio ink made of cells, and layering the ink until the desired result is achieved. The structural integrity of the tissue is able to remain intact by printing a hydrogel in the negative space. This technology allows for realistic tissues to be created, and can be customized to recreate rare defects or abnormalities that doctors want to study. Bioprinting will allow doctors to have a safer and more accurate way of testing drugs and other products. It will also significantly decrease the need for testing on animals. Doctors will be able to study cellular mechanisms and the properties of tissues and blood vessels in a way that is more ethical and just as accurate as before. In the future, doctors will be able to use 3D printed organs in transplant and grafting operations.
Currently, bioengineers are not able to print every organ in the body, however this is one of the long term goals for bioprinting. Some of the hurdles to overcome are the advanced technology involved, and the associated costs. When companies succeed at being able to print any part of the human body, countless lives can be saved because the limitation of resources will no longer be a problem.
In the aerospace and automotive industries, 3D printing in metal is especially popular for the mass manufacturing of parts. However, many companies are also beginning to experiment with the durability of various plastics and other materials. These industries also benefit from the speed and accessibility when attempting to create or modify necessary parts. Stratasys, a key player in the 3D printing industry, reported that UTC Aerospace Systems used 3D printing for a project and saved 20 days and 63 percent of costs.
A favored application of 3D printing is in the food industry. It is currently possible to print a sculpture made of chocolate. NASA is working on having a 3D printer aboard space missions so that astronauts are able to print out their meals. This will optimize the safety of having food aboard a spacecraft. The goal of 3D printing in edible materials will be to optimize the nutrient content of food by using ink that is extracted from plants and other proteins. 3D printed food will also be good for the environment because it allows food waste will be used to create edible ink.
Amateur 3D printing enthusiasts are using the technology to print everything from sculptures to clothes. The goal of many 3D printing companies is to have a 3D printer in every home. However, it is still unrealistically expensive to purchase a 3D printer, and the computer software must be understood in order to print something successfully. For those who do not want to purchase an entire machine, there exists a 3D printing pen that operates similar to a hot glue gun.
There are several publically traded 3D printing companies, and they are relatively risky investments. The 3D printing industry was highly inflated, and peaked between 2012 and 2014. In reality, 3D printing is an enticing concept, but its potential has yet to be unlocked. There is not one prominent industry that has fully incorporated 3D printing. Many investors are waiting to see which industry will be able to use the technology successfully in the long term. 3D printing stocks tend to be volatile because there is so much unknown about the industry. Investors are not willing to take a risk in an already risky market.
The future of 3D printing is all about optimization and efficiency, and it will be exciting to see where it becomes most popular.
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