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 On the Scene: In Gaza, Darkness Brings Dread and Death

Palestinians fear nighttime raids, many feel abandoned by outside world, VOA's Scott Bobb reports More

African Small Farmers Could Be Key to Ending Food Insecurity

Experts say providing access to microloans, crop insurance, better storage facilities, irrigation, road systems and market information could enable greater production More

University of Michigan Wins Solar Car Race

Squad guided its student-designed solar-powered vehicle to fifth consecutive time victory in eight-day bi-annual American Solar Challenge More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Vietnamese Staging Chinese Product Boycott After Oil Rig Spati
X
Reasey Poch
July 28, 2014 7:18 PM
China recently pulled an oil rig from an area of the disputed South China Sea that Vietnam also claims. Despite the action, the incident has had a lingering effect on consumers in Vietnam. VOA's Reasey Poch reports from Hanoi on an effort to boycott Chinese products.
Video

Video Vietnamese Staging Chinese Product Boycott After Oil Rig Spat

China recently pulled an oil rig from an area of the disputed South China Sea that Vietnam also claims. Despite the action, the incident has had a lingering effect on consumers in Vietnam. VOA's Reasey Poch reports from Hanoi on an effort to boycott Chinese products.
Video

Video ESA Spacecraft to Land on a Comet

After a long flight through deep space, a European Space Agency probe is finally approaching its target -- a comet millions of kilometers away from earth. Scientists say the mission may lead to some startling discoveries about the origins of the water on earth. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Video

Video Young Africans Arrive in US for Leadership Program

President Barack Obama's Young African Leadership Initiative has brought hundreds of young Africans to the United States for a six-week program aimed at building their knowledge and skills in fields such as public administration and business. Out of the 50,000 young Africans who applied for the program, just one percent was accepted. VOA's Laurel Bowman caught up with some of those who made the cut and has this report.
Video

Video In Honduras, Amnesty Rumors Fuel US Migration Surges

False rumors in Central America are fueling the current surge of undocumented young people being apprehended at the U.S. border. The inaccurate claims suggest the U.S. will give amnesty to young migrants from the region. As VOA's Brian Padden reports from Honduras, these rumors trace back to President Obama's 2012 executive order to halt deportations for some young undocumented immigrants already living in the United States.
Video

Video Students in Business for Themselves

They're only high school students, but they are making accessories for shoes, fabricating backpacks and doing product photography - all through their own businesses. It's the result of a partnership between a non-profit organization that teaches entrepreneurship and their schools. VOA's Mike O'Sullivan and Deyane Moses met the budding entrepreneurs near Los Angeles.
Video

Video Astronauts Train in Underwater Lab

In the world’s only underwater laboratory, four U.S. astronauts train for a planned visit to an asteroid. The lab - called Aquarius- is located five kilometers off Key Largo, in southern Florida. Living in close quarters and making excursions only into the surrounding ocean, they try to simulate the daily routine of a crew that will someday travel to collect samples of a rock orbiting far away from earth. VOA’s George Putic has more.

AppleAndroid