When 3D printing first emerged, it was rightly seen as a major innovation allowing people to custom design and produce their own objects. The images of the printer, pumping out layer upon layer of material to create an object became something of awe. Nowadays, access to 3D printers has become widespread, as have its uses, some of which certainly hadn’t been envisaged by the original inventors.
Offering efficiency and affordable tailored production, we can now see how 3D printing is revolutionising the entire process behind how we create and manufacture physical artefacts. Below, we have a look at some of the most advanced and innovative applications of 3D printing technology which are currently in development.
DIY & open-source custom prostheses
One constant in the development of the 3-D printing industry is that it truly is a community. There are a number of organisations and volunteers around the world designing all manner of innovative additions to existing products. One such case is prostheses. They range from commonly-lost limbs such as hands, arms, and legs, to facial reconstruction prosthetics and even items for animals. By scanning and modelling a patient, custom-fitted prostheses can be designed and often printed with commonly available printers and materials.
Medicine & bio-tech
While the technology may require more refinement, 3D printed organs are no longer a pipe dream, although current technology is limited to creating tissue cultures so far. In other areas, 3D printed medication is beginning to appear, the first of which is a version of a common anti-convulsant called levetiracetam. The added value here is that 3D printed medication can dissolve rapidly on the tongue, which conventionally manufactured medication cannot.
Another field of science where 3-D printing technology is making great strides is materials science. The process is now capable of creating composite filaments with carbon fibre or other materials added to enhance strength. The door is open for much more innovation in the creation of new composite materials for many applications.
Another field of research in materials science that is making great progress is “Metamaterials”. These work more like complex machines and have become feasible thanks to 3D printing. They can function as hinges, door handles, and potentially much more, all without complex moving parts.
Novel structures & 4D smart objects
4D printing refers to the use of special materials to print objects which can change shape and form post-production. Triggers for these changes can include water, heat, wind, and other forms of energy. 3D printing is making design and production of previously unthought-of structures and materials with properties that make innovation feasible. For example, researchers have created objects that change shape or can be folded when impacted by some external stimuli. One way this can be done is by using multiple materials which expand at different rates so that an object flexes in response to heat as one side of the object expands more than the other. So, you might 4D print a box that flattens itself for easy storage when exposed to a heat source.
The technology for 3-D printed food has been accessible for quite some time, and this kind of food manufacturing is primed to become widespread. Sceptics may question the aesthetic qualities of such foodstuffs, but it is a viable and low-cost way of getting meals in areas where food might not be easily available, not only in parts of the world, but underwater or even in space.