News / Science & Technology

Rethinking Objects, Form Key to 3D Printing Revolution

A 3D table lamp called the Lotus.MGX, designed by Janne Kyttanen, is seen at the Belgian company Materialise, the biggest 3D printer in Europe, in Leuven, January 24, 2013.
A 3D table lamp called the Lotus.MGX, designed by Janne Kyttanen, is seen at the Belgian company Materialise, the biggest 3D printer in Europe, in Leuven, January 24, 2013.
Reuters
3D printing has already changed the game for manufacturing specialized products such as medical devices but the real revolution will come when designers start to rethink the shapes of objects.

3D printing removes the limitations of the manufacturing process from the equation, which means whatever can be designed on a computer can be turned into an object, specialists say.

To really start using the technology to its full potential, designers and engineers need to imagine new products.

"You are almost unlimited as to the type of geometric complexity," said Terry Wohlers, an independent analyst who advises companies on the 3D printing sector.

Belgium-based company Materialise, a pioneer in the process, has a display of a foldable chair printed from one continuous piece of plastic - and made with the hinges already joined together, for example.

Vanessa Palsenbarg, Corporate Communications Specialist at Materialise, shows a 3D model called Burn Mask, a customized mask for facial scar management at the company's headquarters in Leuven, January 24, 2013.Vanessa Palsenbarg, Corporate Communications Specialist at Materialise, shows a 3D model called Burn Mask, a customized mask for facial scar management at the company's headquarters in Leuven, January 24, 2013.
x
Vanessa Palsenbarg, Corporate Communications Specialist at Materialise, shows a 3D model called Burn Mask, a customized mask for facial scar management at the company's headquarters in Leuven, January 24, 2013.
Vanessa Palsenbarg, Corporate Communications Specialist at Materialise, shows a 3D model called Burn Mask, a customized mask for facial scar management at the company's headquarters in Leuven, January 24, 2013.
"You can do shapes and forms that otherwise would be very expensive to do with traditional manufacturing, or would require many parts that then are later assembled," Wohlers said.

The 3D process has been used to build prototypes for 25 years, but only now is making its way into regular production. Companies such as General Electric Co plan to use 3D printing to build lightweight aircraft parts, while dentists use it to create crowns in the space of an hour rather than two weeks.

3D printers have made working guns and are being tested to see if they can make houses on the moon using lunar soil. Scientists hope they may one day print human organs after researchers successfully printed tissue using human stem cells.

U.S. President Barack Obama even highlighted the technology in this year's State of the Union address as an example of innovation that can create jobs.

Wilfried Vancraen, chief executive of Materialise, poses for Reuters on a 3D KOL/MAC Root Chair by Sulan Kolatan and William MacDonald, built in one piece on Materialise's Mammoth Stereolithography Machine, in Leuven, January 24, 2013.Wilfried Vancraen, chief executive of Materialise, poses for Reuters on a 3D KOL/MAC Root Chair by Sulan Kolatan and William MacDonald, built in one piece on Materialise's Mammoth Stereolithography Machine, in Leuven, January 24, 2013.
x
Wilfried Vancraen, chief executive of Materialise, poses for Reuters on a 3D KOL/MAC Root Chair by Sulan Kolatan and William MacDonald, built in one piece on Materialise's Mammoth Stereolithography Machine, in Leuven, January 24, 2013.
Wilfried Vancraen, chief executive of Materialise, poses for Reuters on a 3D KOL/MAC Root Chair by Sulan Kolatan and William MacDonald, built in one piece on Materialise's Mammoth Stereolithography Machine, in Leuven, January 24, 2013.
But Materialise CEO Wilfried Vancraen, recently voted the most influential person in the 3D printing sector by readers of TCT Magazine, a publication devoted to the industry, says the process is too slow and too expensive to replace most mass-market manufacturing - at least as we now know it.

"3D printing is not suited to making most of the products that we use today. You cannot print a Stradivarius just as you can't print an iPad," he said.

"What we have seen is that just replacing a product by a 3D-printed product, for instance in the spare part application, is in many cases even not feasible, and in no cases really economical."

Robot Designers

What you can do is involve the computer in the design process, so it can work out how to improve designs, for example to handle stress better.

"Any part that requires some structural integrity, you can let mathematics decide where to put the material," said Wohlers. "The design can look very organic and very different than what you would normally see."

It's in fields such as medicine and furniture and clothing design that the technology has already had a huge impact.

Already, well over 90 percent of in-the-ear hearing aids are made using 3D printing, and that lets clever software which can work out exactly how to optimize the acoustic properties of the hearing aid into the manufacturing process.

Switzerland-based Sonova, a leading maker of hearing aids, is now using graphics software to modify the shape of the device once it has been scanned, improving its physical fit to the individual ear canal, and its acoustic qualities.

That's all thanks to 3D printing, as this couldn't be done cost-efficiently before.

"Take your fingers, block you ear canals both and speak, and your own voice sounds horrible," said Stefan Launer, Sonova's Vice President of Science & Technology. "By intelligently placing acoustic vents into these housings you can reduce this effect, and that's what we call an acoustic optimized vent, and that's something we can do with this software."

A technician at Belgian company Materialise operates a Materialise-patented Mammoth stereolithography machine, capable of printing parts of up to 2100x680x800mm in one piece, to create 3D objects, at the company's headquarters in Leuven, Jan. 24, 2013.A technician at Belgian company Materialise operates a Materialise-patented Mammoth stereolithography machine, capable of printing parts of up to 2100x680x800mm in one piece, to create 3D objects, at the company's headquarters in Leuven, Jan. 24, 2013.
x
A technician at Belgian company Materialise operates a Materialise-patented Mammoth stereolithography machine, capable of printing parts of up to 2100x680x800mm in one piece, to create 3D objects, at the company's headquarters in Leuven, Jan. 24, 2013.
A technician at Belgian company Materialise operates a Materialise-patented Mammoth stereolithography machine, capable of printing parts of up to 2100x680x800mm in one piece, to create 3D objects, at the company's headquarters in Leuven, Jan. 24, 2013.
The biggest 3D printers, known as mammoth stereolithograhy machines, have a printing area over two meters long and can take up to a week to complete the biggest print jobs.

Inside, an intricate pattern of lasers play over the surface of liquid plastic resin.

Layer by layer, they solidify the resin to form the 3D-printed object under the liquid. At the end of the print, the object rises out of the liquid as it is pushed up out of the reservoir.

In the case of printing houses on the moon, researchers are experimenting with mixing lunar soil mixed with magnesium oxide and a binding salt, building the structure up layer by layer at about two meters (6.6 feet) per hour.

To create human tissue, scientists from Scotland's Heriot-Watt University loaded human stem cells into two separate reservoirs and deposited them onto a plate in a pre-programmed pattern.

Sector Worth $1.7B Worldwide in 2011

The first commercial 3D printer was put on show by South Carolina-based 3D Systems in 1988. Inspired, Vancraen set up Materialise two years later.

"Some printers allow now to mix different materials with different material properties: hard, soft, different densities crossing through one piece," said Vancraen. "That is the most unexplored [characteristic], but also the most difficult to really use well."

He believes that as the new uses emerge, the manufacturing applications of 3D printing will continue to grow, eventually being worth 10, 20 or 30 percent of the manufacturing industry.

Wohlers estimates the 3D printing industry was worth $1.7 billion worldwide in 2011, and will grow to more than $3.7 billion by 2015.

"The growth has been nothing short of phenomenal," he said.

You May Like

Conflicts Engulf Christians in Mideast

Research finds an increase in faith-based hostilities, and Christians are facing persecution in a growing number of countries in the region More

Chinese Americans: Don’t Call Us 'Model Minority'

Label points to collective achievement, but some say it triggers resentment, unrealistic expectations More

Iran Bolsters Phone, Internet Surveillance

Does increased monitoring suggest the government is nervous? More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
West Africa Ebola Vaccine Trials Possible by Early 2015i
X
Carol Pearson
August 30, 2014 7:14 PM
A U.S. health agency is speeding up clinical trials of a possible vaccine against the deadly Ebola virus that so far has killed more than 1,500 people in West Africa. If successful, the next step would be a larger trial in countries where the outbreak is occurring. VOA's Carol Pearson has more.
Video

Video West Africa Ebola Vaccine Trials Possible by Early 2015

A U.S. health agency is speeding up clinical trials of a possible vaccine against the deadly Ebola virus that so far has killed more than 1,500 people in West Africa. If successful, the next step would be a larger trial in countries where the outbreak is occurring. VOA's Carol Pearson has more.
Video

Video Survivors Commemorate 70th Anniversary of Nazi Liquidation of Polish Ghetto

When the Nazi army moved into the Polish city of Lodz in 1939, it marked the beginning of a long nightmare for the Jewish community that once made up one third of the population. Roughly 200,000 people were forced into the Lodz Ghetto. Less than 7,000 survived. As VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, some survivors gathered in Chicago on the 70th anniversary of the liquidation of the Lodz Ghetto to remember those who suffered at the hands of the Nazi regime.
Video

Video Cost to Raise Child in US Continues to Rise

The cost of raising a child in the United States continues to rise. In its latest annual report, the U.S. Department of Agriculture says middle income families with a child born in 2013 can expect to spend more than $240,000 before that child turns 18. And sending that child to college more than doubles that amount. VOA’s Deborah Block visited with a couple with one child in Alexandria, Virginia, to learn if the report reflects their lifestyle.
Video

Video Chaotic Afghan Vote Recount Threatens Nation’s Future

Afghanistan’s troubled presidential election continues to be rocked by turmoil as an audit of the ballots drags on. The U.N. says the recount will not be completed before September 10. Observers say repeated disputes and delays are threatening the orderly transfer of power and could have dangerous consequences. VOA correspondent Meredith Buel reports.
Video

Video Ukraine Battles Pro-Russia Rebel Assault

After NATO concluded an emergency meeting to discuss the crisis in eastern Ukraine, the country is struggling to contain heavy fighting near the strategic port of Mariupol, on the Azov Sea. Separatist rebels are trying to capture the city, allegedly with Russian military help, and Ukraine's defense forces are digging in. VOA's Daniel Schearf spoke with analysts about what lies ahead for Ukraine.
Video

Video Growing Business Offers Paint with a Twist of Wine

Two New Orleans area women started a small business seven years ago with one thing in mind: to help their neighbors relieve the stress of coping with a hurricane's aftermath. Today their business, which pairs painting and a little bit of wine, has become one of the fastest growing franchises across the U.S. VOA’s June Soh met the entrepreneurs at their newest franchise location in the Washington suburbs.
Video

Video Ebola Vaccine Trials To Begin Next Week

The National Institutes of Health says it is launching early stage trials of a vaccine to prevent the Ebola virus, which has infected or killed thousands of people across West Africa. The World Health Organization says Ebola could infect more than 20,000 people across the region by the time the outbreak is over. The epidemic has health experts and governments scrambling to prevent more people from becoming infected. Zlatica Hoke has more.
Video

Video Asian Bacteria Threatens Florida Orange Trees

Florida's citrus fruit industry is facing a serious threat from a bacteria carried by the Asian insect called psyllid. The widespread infestation again highlights the danger of transferring non-native species to American soil. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Aging Will Reduce Economic Growth Worldwide in Coming Decades

The world is getting older, fast. And as more people retire each year, fewer working-age people will be there to replace them. Bond rating agency Moody’s says that will lead to a decline in household savings; reducing global investments - which in turn, will lead to slower economic growth around the world. But experts say it’s not too late to mitigate the economic impact of the world’s aging populations. Mil Arcega has more.
Video

Video Is West Doing Enough to Tackle Islamic State?

U.S. President Barack Obama has ruled out sending ground troops to Iraq to fight militants of the so-called Islamic State, or ISIS, despite officials in Washington describing the extremist group as the biggest threat the United States has faced in years. Henry Ridgwell reports from London on the growing uncertainty over whether the West’s response to ISIS will be enough to defeat the terrorist threat.
Video

Video Coalition to Fight Islamic State Could Reward Assad

The United States along with European and Mideast allies are considering a broader assault against Islamic State fighters who have spread from Syria into Iraq and risk further destabilizing an already troubled region. But as VOA State Department Correspondent Scott Stearns reports, confronting those militants could end up helping the embattled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Video

Video Made in America Socks Get Toehold in Online Fashion Market

Three young entrepreneurs are hoping to revolutionize the high-end sock industry by introducing all-American creations of their own. And they’re doing most of it the old-fashioned way. VOA’s Julie Taboh recently caught up with them to learn what goes into making their one-of-a-kind socks.
Video

Video Americans, Ex-Pats Send Relief Supplies to West Africa

Health organizations from around the world are sending supplies and specialists to the West African countries that are dealing with the worst Ebola outbreak in history. On a smaller scale, ordinary Americans and African expatriates living in the United States are doing the same. VOA's Carol Pearson reports.

AppleAndroid