3-dimensional printing is one of the current big trends. You can now buy a 3D printer in some big-box stores and use it to print things in your home – toys, coffee cups, and whatever else you want to put a design together for.
The consensus in the press is that 3D printing is going to revolutionize manufacturing. That is probably true, but not for the reasons commonly cited – that 3D printing will enable unlimited customization and personalization. Rather, 3D printing’s biggest advantage is that it allows complicated geometries to be manufactured that can’t be accomplished economically by any other method. Injection molding – the most common high volume manufacturing method – requires that parts have draft so that they can be stripped from the mold. For the same reason, injection-molded parts can’t have undercuts. Those constraints don’t exist with 3D printing, and that is what will give it the means to enable revolutionary advances. Geometries that required a number of separate parts to be joined together in an assembly can be manufactured as a single part with 3D printing. That has significant economic, structural and performance advantages. It might also enable functionality that couldn’t be accomplished otherwise.
The most significant illustration of where 3D printing will allow us to go is in this report of a 3D printer being used to manufacture a vascular network structure that can be used to provide nutrients to grow organs.
3D printing still has a long way to go before it can be widely used in manufacturing, the speed of printing being the most significant. But if current limitations can be overcome, it should enable some fantastic new technologies to come to the fore.