3D Printing: A Space Worth Exploring

Future of Industry

3D printing, on the face of it – if you go by the name that is – seems like another, advanced form of printing. It is, of course. But calling it advanced is an understatement, to put it mildly.

Print me a house. And a car while you’re at it

To give you an idea of what 3D printing can do – this year an Austin-based robotics company printed tiny houses, into which someone has even moved in. The company is not alone, of course. A group in Netherlands has completed a sprawling home, printed entirely out of concrete. It’s size? 1,000-square-feet.

And what can be printed is endless – from medical devices, aircraft and automotive parts, cars, prosthetics, to agriculture tools (we cover this in detail below). So, the word “printing” is somewhat of a misnomer. It’s more production than printing really.

According to a recent Global 3D Printing Market Report 2021-2028, the global 3D printing market size said to reach USD 62.79 billion by 2028. Given the advancement in this area, this is a field to explore. Here’s a look at what it is and how one can become a 3D printing artist.

What exactly is 3D Printing?

Put simply, it’s a process that produces (prints) a physical object from a three-dimensional digital model. It does so (typically) by laying down several layers of a material.

Here’s a bit more in detail

3D printing or additive printing, the common umbrella term used to define 3D printing, is a technology where materials are added together in order to form 3D models that are designed using different tools. In order to understand how the 3D files are developed, one must know about Computer-Aided Design (CAD) and 3D modelling.

Additive printing means exactly that – creating models by the addition of layers. Successive layers are laid on top of each other until a 3D model is created. There are different types of 3D printing including Fused Deposition Modeling, Multi Jet Fusion, Digital Light Processing and Stereolithography among others.

How does 3D printing work?

Well, technically it has two steps – designing a model using a 3D software and slicing. One designs the model that needs to be printed in 3D on various software that are available and then using a slicing software, this model is sliced into numerous layers which are then fed into a 3D printer.

The Applications of 3D Printing

The design and development of 3D printing technology began in the 1980s. It began to be more commonly used in the 2010s when they became a lot more economical due to the way they were manufactured and because of availability of support materials. 3D printing also helps in manufacturing highly complex artifacts even with limited resources. In fact, 3D printing has reached such a stage that it is becoming an inevitable production technology.

Additive printing helps in rapid prototyping– a technique where prototypes can be developed on-the-go at different stages of production so that the actual product can be visualized. This helps in understanding how a product is supposed to behave and how it can be modified to adapt to the requirements. Using 3D printing, there is no need to manufacture real products by wasting resources when models that can emulate them easily be created without the need for expensive materials, moulds or equipment.

Prosthetics – Around 15% of the world’s population have some sort of physical disability.  Many prosthetics are not custom-built for a wearer or are not designed to last long. With 3D printing technology, prosthetics can easily be manufactured by anyone with the design and with cheaper materials.

Automotive industry – As with other industries, 3D printing is used in the automobile industry for creating scale models and to speed up the manufacturing processes of prototypes by enabling them to be built quickly and cheaply using 3D printing. These help to understand how a particular part works. 3D printing is also used to build parts for one-off or custom-built vehicles, thus reducing costs by not needing expensive moulds. With the rise of 3D machines capable of using different materials, the day is not far where vehicles are entirely printed.

Entertainment – Traditional methods of creating movie props require a lot of manpower and time. Using 3D printing, the same can be done in a matter of hours without requiring a lot of people. In fact, 3D printing can help in pulling-off convincing practical effects where CGI was the only other option. 3D printing technology can also be used to manufacture musical instruments. These devices can in fact, be created with much better precision than when manually made, thus improving the quality of the music produced.

Engineering – When it comes to building and construction, engineers can depend on 3D printing to examine scale models of structures that are to be built and to understand the different design features including how lighting works, how the weight of a structure is distributed, how a particular part can be further improved etc.

Healthcare – The healthcare industry is set to be revolutionised with the extensive use of 3D printing. Most of the medical equipment are very expensive to manufacture and moreover, their availability is limited. With 3D printing, such machines can be manufactured anywhere at a fraction of the original cost. Areas such as dentistry, surgery, prosthetics, organ development etc are set to benefit from lost-cost additive printing.

Aerospace – In the aerospace industry, 3D printing helps to build instruments with great accuracy and with lowered weights.  The engineers at GE manufactured 30,000 fuel nozzles using 3D printing technology. The team which worked on this claimed that the nozzle tip’s weight was reduced by 25%. As far as aerospace is concerned, reduced weight makes a massive difference in the flight’s performance. The 3D printed nozzles also improved fuel efficiency due to its precision.

Mass customization –  Several products can be produced on a large-scale without the need for manufacturing units. Through 3D printing, every product can be customized as per the requirements of the customer. Designs can even be made elsewhere and sent to the customer as an STL file who can then print it at his own expense.

Research – Researchers have been making use of 3D printing technology to study about different processes including the structures of chemical compounds, and understanding concepts from pure and applied sciences. They also use additive printing to manufacture research components.

Of course, these are only a few of the applications that 3D printing can be used in. Let’s take a look at how one can become a 3D printing artist.

Opportunities in 3D Printing

In order to get into 3D printing as a career, one can focus on getting certificate programs, take up university degrees in additive technology/additive manufacturing and take up online self-help programs. MIT offers a certificate program in additive manufacturing. Carnegie Mellon University offers a graduate program in additive manufacturing. Nanyang Technological University at Singapore also offers graduate programs including two MSc programs with additive manufacturing as specializations. Sheffield University offers a graduate degree in Additive Manufacturing and Advanced Manufacturing Technologies. University of Maryland offers a graduate engineering program in additive manufacturing. The Barnes Global Advisors, in association with Purdue University, offer a certificate course in additive manufacturing for engineers and business professionals. Cranfield University offers a graduate program in metal additive manufacturing.

People who have a background in mechanical engineering, software development, material science, 3D modelling and design, technicians etc can take up a career in additive manufacturing.

Some of the opportunities that await those who take up 3D printing as a career include R&D at 3D labs, 3D artists, 3D printer operator, 3D manufacturing, and 3D fabrication among others. If you are looking to take up a career in 3D design, you must be aware of technologies such as 3DS Max,  Maya, SketchUp etc.

A career in additive manufacturing can be a fulfilling one. Apart from it being a rewarding one in terms of compensation (a fresher can expect a remuneration of anything between USD 40000 to USD 70000), it also plays a vital role in providing benefits to the society by being able to manufacture quickly and by using materials are safe for the environment and cheap.

It is important to have good first-hand experience as well as a few 3D projects to your credit in order to move up in your career. Due to the current gap between supply and demand for 3D printing operators, those who take up this path will most likely be in a good position in the years to come.

The Future

Engineering is set to be the biggest winner of all since additive technology is making new inroads in manufacturing and in the use of different materials for building. This could mean that scientific studies, construction, automotive, etc will become more dynamic, distributed and economic in the long run.

Researchers have been using 3D printing technology to manufacture their own equipment. By building customized equipment specific to their research, the scientists will become less-dependent on equipment-manufacturers and will only have to spend a fraction of what they will spend on buying from such manufacturers.

3D printing organs is another research that is being carried out with fervour. Bioprinting, the technique based on 3D printing for the creation of organic items, has been revolutionizing the way 3D printing is being used to create biological organs. The use of organic tissues to manufacture organs has been nearing success and this can help in saving millions of lives across the globe.

From 3D printers to those that can print anything, additive printing technology is evolving by the day. Whatever the future has in store for us, we can be sure that 3D printing will play a defining part in it.

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