Though 3D printing technology was introduced more than three decades ago, it’s only recently gained traction with a wider market. 3D printers were one of Amazon’s most popular holiday gifts for hobbyists in 2017, but this technology has broader application in many different market sectors—including those that touch our everyday lives: such as healthcare, food production, and the automotive industry. Here’s a look at how 3D printing is transforming those fields.
Breakthroughs in Medicine
Long recognized in the product design space as a useful tool for rapid prototyping, 3D powder-bed printing technology has now expanded its reach to the medical community, where precision is a core value proposition. The ability to control individual parameters and material properties enables the technology’s use in multiple contexts, from printing new skin for burn victims to producing living bone tissue for patients needing reinforcement for dental implants.
For patients requiring customized dosage amounts of medication, 3D printers have been used to quickly produce small batches of drugs at smaller dose amounts than are typically manufactured, saving both time and money while still ensuring accuracy.
The ability to print tools and devices in short order has allowed technicians to produce patient-matched objects that are meant for specific use cases, like surgical instrumentation that can now be printed on a “just-in-time” basis. Further, the production of medical devices is another exciting area wherein 3D printing is being used to create implants for joint replacements and prosthetics. This method allows for a precise match to patient-specific anatomical measurements—with the potential to significantly reduce post-surgical complications due to fit and function.
In 2016, a team at the Wake Forest School of Medicine successfully printed an ear from cartilage cells that grew normally after implant. In the US alone, there are over 120,000 people awaiting organ transplants; most of these kidneys. Many researchers are evaluating the viability of producing 3D printed facsimiles to address the scarcity of donor organs. While this work is still in its early stages, researchers are optimistic. Professor Joel C. Glover, director of the Norwegian Center for Stem Cell Research at Oslo University Hospital, estimates that the first full transplant with a wholly 3D printed organ will occur within the next 5-10 years.
Scaling Food Production
As awareness grows for the relationship between health and diet, there is increased concern for how to improve access to healthy food and make its production more sustainable. Researchers at MIT’s AgeLab are discovering that this is something that 3D printing technology also has the potential to address. Currently, the AgeLab is looking into how food cartridges can be used to reduce transportation costs and emissions. These cartridges can also be loaded with fresh ingredients to quickly make cooked foods such as quiches, pizzas, and baked goods. This rapid approach facilitates greater scalability of food production and can address food shortages in regions without access to nutritious, affordable food.
While many emphasize the powerful potential of 3D printing to address food shortages through the use of hydrocolloids to replace base ingredients of many dishes, Herve Malivert of the International Culinary Center also notes the democratizing power of 3D printing technology in the culinary space. Deposition and binding printers, such as 3D Systems’ Chefjet and Natural Foods’ Choc Edge, are new 3D food printers that can be used to realize complicated food structures and to bring culinary aesthetic visions to life with reduced labor. Pasta giant Barilla has also introduced a 3D printer that prints pasta noodles after adding just two ingredients.
Rapid Prototyping and Custom Production in Automotive
With increased focus on both efficiency and manufacturing’s impact on the environment, 3D printing has taken center stage in the automotive industry. First, carbon-fiber printers emerged as a streamlined method for rapid prototyping to test form, fit, and function. But now the development of 3D printed end-use parts is becoming a reality. Technologies such as Fused Filament Fabrication (FFF) have become more reliable and robust, allowing companies like Volkswagen to produce wheel protectors and others to begin experimenting with the development of carbon fiber air intake ductwork. Aftermarket accessories are another area of opportunity for 3D printing technology in the automotive industry—these accessories are often customized to individual vehicles, and their production via traditional methods is more costly and more complex.
While 3D printing was initially adopted in manufacturing to investigate challenges in the early project design phase, as the technology has advanced, its application and scope have grown exponentially. Because 3D design can be customized more readily than with traditional models, scalability, sustainability, and reduced costs may not be too far off for a multitude of industries—even those that are highly specialized. Though its potential has not yet been fully realized, 3D printing may prove to be an adaptable solution that benefits both company and consumer.