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

Video British Fighters on Frontline of Islamic State Information War

It’s estimated that several hundred British citizens are fighting for Islamic State alongside other foreign jihadists More

Pakistan's Political Turmoil Again Shines Spotlight on Military

Thousands of protesters calling for PM Sharif to step down continue protests in front of parliament, as critics fear political impasse could spur another military coup More

Photogallery Ebola Quarantines Spark Anxiety in Liberian Capital

Food prices rise sharply as residents attempting purchases clash with security forces, leaving one person dead More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Native Bees May Help Save Cropsi
X
Deborah Block
August 22, 2014 12:23 AM
U.S. President Barack Obama has called for a federal strategy to promote the health of bees that have been declining. The honeybee has been waning due to parasites, disease and pesticides. Wild bees may be used to take over their role as crop pollinators. Scientists first need to learn a lot more about wild bees, says biologist Sam Droege, who is pioneering the first national inventory on native bees. VOA’s Deborah Block went to his research laboratory in Beltsville, Maryland, to bring you more.
Video

Video Native Bees May Help Save Crops

U.S. President Barack Obama has called for a federal strategy to promote the health of bees that have been declining. The honeybee has been waning due to parasites, disease and pesticides. Wild bees may be used to take over their role as crop pollinators. Scientists first need to learn a lot more about wild bees, says biologist Sam Droege, who is pioneering the first national inventory on native bees. VOA’s Deborah Block went to his research laboratory in Beltsville, Maryland, to bring you more.
Video

Video US Defense Officials Plan for Long-Term Strategy to Contain Islamic State

U.S. defense officials say American air strikes in Iraq have helped deter Islamic State militants for the time being, but that a broad international effort is needed to defeat the extremists permanently. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel warned Thursday that the group formerly known as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL, is better organized, and financially and militarily stronger than any other known terrorist group. Zlatica Hoke has more.
Video

Video Drug-Resistant Malaria Spreads in Southeast Asia

On Thailand’s border with Myanmar, also known as Burma, a malaria research and treatment clinic is stepping up efforts to eliminate a drug-resistant form of the parasite - before it spreads abroad. Steve Sandford reports from Mae Sot, Thailand.
Video

Video Gaza Conflict, Hamas Popularity Challenge Abbas

The Palestinian unity government of Mahmoud Abbas has failed to convince Hamas to agree to Egyptian-negotiated terms with Israel on a Gaza cease-fire. VOA State Department Correspondent Scott Stearns reports on what the Gaza conflict means for President Abbas, with whom U.S. officials have worked for years on a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Video

Video Nigeria's 'Nollywood' Movie Industry Rolls in High Gear

Twenty years after its birth in a video shop in Lagos, Nigeria's "Nollywood" is one of the most prolific film industries on earth. Despite low budgets and whirlwind production schedules, Nigerian films are wildly popular in Africa and industry professionals say they hope, in the future, their films will be as great in quality as they are in quantity. Heather Murdock has more for VOA from Lagos.
Video

Video UN Launches 'Biggest Aid Operation in 30 Years' in Iraq

The United Nations has launched what it describes as one of the biggest aid operations in 30 years in northern Iraq, as hundreds of thousands of refugees flee the extremist Sunni militant group calling itself the Islamic State. As Kurdish and Iraqi forces battle the Sunni insurgents, the fighting has forced more people to flee their homes. Kurdish authorities say the international community must act now to avert a humanitarian catastrophe. Henry Ridgwell reports for VOA from London.
Video

Video Cambodian American Hip Hop Artist Sings of Personal Struggles

A growing underground movement of Cambodian American hip hop artists is rapping about the struggles of living in urban America. Most, if not all of them, are refugees or children of refugees who came to the United States from Cambodia to escape the Khmer Rouge genocide of the 1970s. Through their music, the artists hope to give voice to immigrants who have been struggling quietly for years. Elizabeth Lee reports from Long Beach, California.
Video

Video African Media Tries to Educate Public About Ebola

While the Ebola epidemic continues to claim lives in West Africa, information technology specialists, together with radio and TV reporters, are battling misinformation and prejudice about the disease - using social media to educate the public about the deadly virus. VOA’s George Putic has more.

AppleAndroid