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 VOA EXCLUSIVE: Iraq President Vows to Fight IS 'Until They Are Killed or We Die'

In wide-ranging interview with VOA Persian service reporter, Fuad Masum describes conflict as new type of fight that will take time to win More

Video Russian Anti-Corruption Campaigner Slams Putin’s Crackdown on Dissent

In interview with VOA Alexei Navalny says he believes new law against 'undesirable NGOs' part of move to keep Russian president in power More

Video On The Scene: In Ethiopia, 'Are You a Journalist?' Is a Loaded Question

VOA's Anita Powell describes the difficulties faced by reporters in fully conveying the story in a country where people are reticent to share their true opinions More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Expelled from Pakistan, Afghan Refugees Return to Increased Hardshipi
X
Ayesha Tanzeem
May 28, 2015 6:48 PM
Undocumented refugees returning to Afghanistan from Pakistan have no jobs, no support system, and no home return to, and international aid agencies say they and the government are overwhelmed and under-resourced. Ayesha Tanzeem has more from Kabul.
Video

Video Expelled from Pakistan, Afghan Refugees Return to Increased Hardship

Undocumented refugees returning to Afghanistan from Pakistan have no jobs, no support system, and no home return to, and international aid agencies say they and the government are overwhelmed and under-resourced. Ayesha Tanzeem has more from Kabul.
Video

Video Britain Makes Controversial Move to Crack Down on Extremism

Britain is moving to tighten controls on extremist rhetoric, even when it does not incite violence or hatred -- a move that some are concerned might unduly restrict basic freedoms. It is an issue many countries are grappling with as extremist groups gain power in the Middle East, fueled in part by donations and fighters from the West. VOA’s Al Pessin reports from London.
Video

Video Floodwaters Recede in Houston, but Rain Continues

Many parts of Texas are recovering from one of the worst natural disasters to hit the southwestern state. Heavy rains on Monday and early Tuesday caused rivers to swell in eastern and central Texas, washing away homes and killing at least 13 people. As VOA’s Greg Flakus reports from Houston, floodwaters are receding slowly in the country's fourth-largest city, and there likely is to be more rain in the coming days.
Video

Video 3D Printer Makes Replica of Iconic Sports Car

Cars with parts made by 3D printers are already on the road, but engineers are still learning about this new technology. While testing the possibility of printing an entire car, researchers at the U.S. Department of Energy recently created an electric-powered replica of an iconic sports roadster. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Video

Video Al-Shabab Recruitment Drive Still on In Kenya

The al-Shabab militants that have long battled for control of Somalia also have recruited thousands of young people in Kenya, leaving many families disconsolate. Mohammed Yusuf recently visited the Kenyan town of Isiolo, and met with relatives of those recruited, as well as a many who have helped with the recruiting.
Video

Video US Voters Seek Answers From Presidential Candidates on IS Gains

The growth of the Islamic State militant group in Iraq and Syria comes as the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign kicks off in the Midwest state of Iowa.   As VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, voters want to know how the candidates would handle recent militant gains in the Middle East.
Video

Video A Small Oasis on Kabul's Outskirts Provides Relief From Security Tensions

When people in Kabul want to get away from the city and relax, many choose Qargha Lake, a small resort on the outskirts of Kabul. Ayesha Tanzeem visited and talked with people about the precious oasis.
Video

Video Film Festival Looks at Indigenous Peoples, Culture Conflict

A recent Los Angeles film festival highlighted the plight of people caught between two cultures. Mike O'Sullivan has more on the the Garifuna International Film Festival, a Los Angeles forum created by a woman from Central America who wants the world to know more about her culture.
Video

Video Kenyans Lament Losing Sons to al-Shabab

There is agony, fear and lost hope in the Kenyan town of Isiolo, a key target of a new al-Shabab recruitment drive. VOA's Mohammed Yusuf visits Isiolo to speak with families and at least one man who says he was a recruiter.
Video

Video Scientists Say Plankton More Important Than Previously Thought

Tiny ocean creatures called plankton are mostly thought of as food for whales and other large marine animals, but a four-year global study discovered, among other things, that plankton are a major source of oxygen on our planet. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Kenya’s Capital Sees Rise in Shisha Parlors

In Kenya, the smoking of shisha, a type of flavored tobacco, is the latest craze. Patrons are flocking to shisha parlors to smoke and socialize. But the practice can be addictive and harmful, though many dabblers may not realize the dangers, according to a new review. Lenny Ruvaga has more on the story for VOA from Nairobi, Kenya.
Video

Video Iowa Family's Sacrifice Shaped US Military Service for Generations

Few places in America have experienced war like Waterloo. This small town in the Midwest state of Iowa became famous during World War II not for what it accomplished, but what it lost. As VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, the legacy of one family’s sacrifice is still a reminder today of the real cost of war for all families on the homefront.

VOA Blogs