When Chris Tucker found a Makerbot 3D printer by the side of the road, he thought he’d won the lottery. He cleaned it up, replaced missing parts, and started his own “Maker Lab” at home. What was the first thing he built? “Hooks for my ties and a fly swatter,” he states proudly.
Tucker, the curriculum consultant and technological education teacher with the York Region Board of Education in Toronto Ontario, knew this technology could be applied to his classroom, both with tangible projects and with the principles of design thinking. “The printer allows us to prototype, test, and ideate much, much faster,” Tucker tells Parentology.
3D printing converts digital files into three-dimensional objects by layering material in a process known as additive manufacturing (where something is built from literally nothing). A substrate is released layer-by-layer to produce anything from tie hooks to buildings. So what are the next 3D printing breakthroughs on the way?
The 3D printers of today (and tomorrow) use more than just plastic. The race to find sustainable and innovative materials shows no signs of slowing down. Current printers can produce objects from metals, ceramics, glass, chocolate, rubber, earth, waste, concrete and even stem cells.
Sustainability is a major area of concern for developers of this technology. While additive manufacturing eliminates some production waste and increases efficiency, using substrates such as garbage and paper fibers (both of which are available in abundance from landfills), 3D printers can produce items of use that are also recyclable.
When you think of a home computer, you probably visualize a slender laptop or tablet. It’s hard to imagine the first computers once occupied 1,800 square feet of floor space. As technology becomes faster and more efficient, it also tends to shrink in size and portability. The 3D printer is no exception.
The design process is scalable; within a short period of time, we’ll see average consumers outputting CAD designs on a 3D printer in much the same way as an engineer designs for NASA.
Simon Shen, CEO of XYZPrinting, recently launched the da Vinci Full-Color Mini 3D Printer. Aimed at a broader consumer market, Shen says the da Vinci will bring “color 3D printing technology within reach for small businesses, schools, designers, makers, and general consumers. We will continue to provide innovative, high-quality 3D printers while making it affordable for everyone to utilize this technology and incorporate it into their daily lives”.
Tucker says that the biggest barrier to new 3D printing breakthroughs is still the time it takes to produce a print. “Incremental layering means you still have to wait for the printer to heat the material, then you have to wait for a layer to dry before the next one is applied. It’s not the super-fast technology everyone thinks it is… yet.”
As researchers seek out new materials, they’re also looking ahead to what can be accomplished with faster printing speeds. For example, the MIT Laboratory for Manufacturing and Productivity recently created a printer that can produce a pair of eyeglass frames in only 3.6 minutes. When all printers can accommodate accelerated print speeds “there’s nothing 3D printing won’t touch,” Tucker says.
As for integration and automation converge, we’ll start seeing how the landscape of manufacturing changes. “3D printing can produce rapid prototyping in half the time it would take to traditionally carve one out,” says Tucker says. With this type of interdisciplinary collaboration “there’s nothing that 3D printing won’t touch.”
We’re already starting to see new areas of application. For example, surgeons can produce 3D models of their patients’ organs to prepare for and practice surgical procedures. With the onset of new and innovative materials coming to market, these printers will also be able to create objects such as antimicrobial surgical tools, digital dentures, and customized foot insoles.
3D printing can now be applied to food innovations. For example, one company has developed a 3D-printed mold to create chocolates. Other companies like Choc Edge have created printers that use chocolate as the actual building material. One Ukrainian pastry chef used a Rhino add-on to create an Algorithmic Modelling Cake, a tasty and beautiful dessert that fuses architectural aesthetic with baking.
Elsewhere, companies such as Chef-it and NovaMeat are using 3D technology to solve the issues of meat consumption and the greenhouse gas emissions that accompany it. 3D printed “meat” uses plant-based proteins to sustainably provide meat alternatives while protecting the environment.
“3D machines now cost less and can run things overnight,” Tucker says. “In terms of application, small-batch manufacturing is where things are really changing and shifting.” One such area is space exploration. Most recently, NASA emailed a ratchet wrench to the International Space Station. “When they go to Mars, they’ll go with raw material and a printer – or just use the dirt,” Tucker says.
A firm believer in design thinking, Tucker couldn’t wait to apply his 3D printer to his classroom methodology. From a project-based collaboration perspective, he encourages his students to design different parts, print them, and assemble everything to see if and how they work together. “It’s a real maker space,” he says. “We can prototype and test in a series of hours, not days.”
Though we’re far away from fully-functional 3D printed neighborhoods, the scalable technology is getting there. Sustainable and affordable, 3D homes will waste fewer materials, use fewer resources and build on environmentally-friendly construction principles in less time than it takes to build a traditional home.
Similar to its application in space, 3D printing is also set to take the automotive industry by storm. 3D metal printers will eliminate waste and produce lighter parts in less time. “There are some car manufacturers that now solely rely on additive manufacturing for their parts,” says Tucker. “They’re printing them as needed. They don’t manufacture certain parts anymore.”
It’s yet to be determined what the value-add will be once 3D printers are available to the general consumer (beyond tie hooks and fly swatters). However, if it delivers on its promise and potential, there’s not a single industry that won’t be augmented by – or benefit from – 3D printing breakthroughs.
3D Printing Breakthroughs — Sources
3D Printed House
Algorithmic Modelling Cake
Antimicrobial surgical tools
Da Vinci Full Color
MIT Laboratory for Manufacturing and Productivity
Paper Pulp Printer