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

Multimedia Obama, Modi Break Nuclear Deal Deadlock

Impasse over liability issues had been stalling bilateral civilian nuclear cooperation; deal reached at start of US president's three-day visit to India More

WHO's Late Efforts in Tackling Ebola Highlight Need for Reform

Health experts debate measures to reform agency’s response to global public health emergencies in special one-day session on deadly outbreak More

One Tumultuous Year in Power for CAR's President

As sectarian violence raged across Central African Republic, interim President Catherine Samba-Panza has Herculean task: to end civil war and put country back on right track More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Worldwide Photo Workshops Empower Youthi
X
Julie Taboh
January 23, 2015 11:08 PM
Last September, 20 young adults from South Sudan took part in a National Geographic Photo Camp. They are among hundreds of students from around the world who have learned how to use a camera to tell the stories of the people in their communities through the powerful medium of photography. Three camp participants talked about their experiences recently on a visit to Washington. VOA’s Julie Taboh reports.
Video

Video Worldwide Photo Workshops Empower Youth

Last September, 20 young adults from South Sudan took part in a National Geographic Photo Camp. They are among hundreds of students from around the world who have learned how to use a camera to tell the stories of the people in their communities through the powerful medium of photography. Three camp participants talked about their experiences recently on a visit to Washington. VOA’s Julie Taboh reports.
Video

Video US, Japan Offer Lessons as Eurozone Launches Huge Stimulus

The Euro currency has fallen sharply after the European Central Bank announced a bigger-than-expected $67 billion-a-month quantitative easing program Thursday - commonly seen as a form of printing new money. Henry Ridgwell reports for VOA from London on whether the move might rescue the eurozone economy -- and what lessons have been learned from similar programs around the world.
Video

Video Nigerian Elections Pose Concern of Potential Conflict in 'Middle Belt'

Nigeria’s north-central state of Kaduna has long been the site of fighting between Muslims and Christians as well as between people of different ethnic groups. As the February elections approach, community and religious leaders are making plans they hope will keep the streets calm after results are announced. Chris Stein reports from the state capital, Kaduna.
Video

Video As Viewership Drops, Obama Puts His Message on YouTube

Ratings reports show President Obama’s State of the Union address this week drew the lowest number of viewers for this annual speech in 15 years. White House officials anticipated this, and the president has decided to take a non-traditional approach to getting his message out. VOA White House correspondent Luis Ramirez reports.
Video

Video S. Korean Businesses Want to End Trade Restrictions With North

Business leaders in South Korea are calling for President Park Geun-hye to ease trade restrictions with North Korea that were put in place in 2010 after the sinking of a South Korean warship.Pro-business groups argue that expanding trade and investment is not only good for business, it is also good for long-term regional peace and security. VOA’s Brian Padden reports.
Video

Video US Marching Bands Grow Into a Show of Their Own

The 2014 Super Bowl halftime show was the most-watched in history - attracting an estimated 115 million viewers. That event featured pop star Bruno Mars. But the halftime show tradition started with marching bands, which still dominate the entertainment at U.S. high school and college American football games. But as Enming Liu reports in this story narrated by Adrianna Zhang, marching bands have grown into a show of their own.
Video

Video Secular, Religious Kurds Face Off in Southeast Turkey

Turkey’s predominantly Kurdish southeast has been rocked by violence between religious and secular Kurds. Dorian Jones reports on the reasons behind the stand-off from the region's main city of Diyarbakir, which suffered the bloodiest fighting.
Video

Video Kenya: Misuse of Antibiotics Leading to Resistance by Immune System

In Kenya, the rise of drug resistant bacteria could reverse the gains made by medical science over diseases that were once treatable. Kenyans could be at risk of fatalities as a result if the power in antibiotics is not preserved. Lenny Ruvaga has more on the story from Nairobi.
Video

Video Solar-Powered Plane Getting Ready to Circumnavigate Globe

Pilots of the solar plane that already set records flying without a drop of fuel are close to making their first attempt to fly the craft around the globe. They plan to do it in 25 flying days over a five month period. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video How Experts Decide Ethiopia Has the Best Coffee

Ethiopia’s coffee has been ranked as the best in the world by an international group of coffee connoisseurs. Not surprisingly, coffee is a top export for the country. But at home it is a source of pride. Marthe van der Wolf in Addis Ababa decided to find out what makes the bean and brew so special and how experts make their determinations.
Video

Video Yazidi Refugees at Center of Political Fight Between Turkey, Kurds

The treatment of thousands of Yazidis refugees who fled to Turkey to escape attacks by Islamic State militants has become the center of a dispute between the Turkish government and the country's pro-Kurdish movement. VOA's Dorian Jones reports.
Video

Video World’s Richest 1% Forecast to Own More Than Half of Global Wealth

The combined wealth of the world's richest 1 percent will overtake that of the remaining 99 percent at some point in 2016, according to the anti-poverty charity Oxfam. Campaigners are demanding that policymakers take action to address the widening gap between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’, as Henry Ridgwell reports for VOA from London.

Circumventing Censorship

An Internet Primer for Healthy Web Habits

As surveillance and censoring technologies advance, so, too, do new tools for your computer or mobile device that help protect your privacy and break through Internet censorship.
More

All About America

AppleAndroid