A technology known as 3-D printing, or "additive manufacturing," has long been used for producing prototype models of three-dimensional objects. A new exhibit that opened in London Thursday shows how the technology has evolved to save time and money in producing machines, clothes, cars and even body parts, using rapid prototyping industrial robots, known as 3-D printers
On display at the exhibit is a car that can reach speeds of 320 kilometers per hour and is set to be entered in the Le Mans 24-hour race. It is the result of several prototypes built by Strakka Racing, a company based in Silverstone, England - the home of Britain's motor sports.
"Motorsports is such a competitive industry that if you're slow in bringing something to the track, you fall behind, and once you fall behind it's almost impossible to catch up,” said Dan Walmsley, engineer and team principal for Strakka Racing.
Like many other teams, Strakka has been using 3-D printing of components to try out designs and materials as quickly as possible. But the company is now producing the actual car parts using the 3-D print technology, which is essentially adding layers of material under computer control to get a desired shape.
"So we've got aerodynamic components on the car such as the front dive planes, the air intake, interior components. We found that the material properties have recently moved forwards to a point where they're stiff enough and strong enough and light enough to function as a fully finished production component on a race car," explained Walmsley.
A Dutch producer is developing smaller drones for use in everyday life, like surveying areas for fires or other problems.
"At the moment we're working on drone-to-drone communication, that is where a drone can talk with another drone and knows where he is in the area, at this stage we're developing this. For the future, drones will only get smarter and smaller and will do stuff we cannot imagine now," said Joost Hezemans, head of design for drone manufacturer Aerialtronics.
Movie costume makers also find the technology useful.
"Not so long ago if we'd have invested a lot of time in making a prototype, if we found that it didn't fit or we had to change it dramatically, you know, you're really going back massive amount of weeks of work. Now, you can make the modifications pretty quick," said Grant Pairman, costume manufacturer for FBFX Ltd.
Naomi Kaempfer, creative director of Stratsys, a U.S. manufacturer of 3-D printers, says manufacturing in 3-D printing is still evolving.
“We are still waiting for 3-D printed materials that have the right durability and the strength that textile fiber allows. We have to understand that 3-D printing is an additive layered technology, and in order to create fiber strength you actually need to have a continuous fiber going through the material,” said Kaempfer.
Today, 3D printing has come a long way from the time when it served to produce models for plastic surgeons, architects and manufacturers to only visualize the final product.