A variety of 3D printing applications were widely discussed at the 3D printing events we attended this year in Europe. Special printers are being used in the manufacturing sector for producing parts from metal and rubber-like materials, or so-called "digital materials". In healthcare, professional 3D printers can now combine bio-compatible materials with photocurable resins of varying textures, transparency, and flexibility. Surgeons can therefore now plan complex operations using CT scan data of patients’ bones, blood vessels, and other organs. This data, transformed into a 3D-printable digital file, can be studied, modified, or printed well in advance of a surgical procedure. Drawing on all the products, technologies, and trends we saw and discussed with participants at events, in the following article we introduce primarily the less obvious uses of 3D printing – mainly involving the printing of very small, and, conversely, very large objects. These uses, perhaps currently seen as less suitable 3D printing applications, actually represent unprecedented possibilities for many human activities.
Microscale and Nanoscale 3D Printing
In areas including chemistry, optics/photonics, life sciences, materials sciences, and nanofabrication, 3D printing accuracy of 0.1mm is insufficient, and the most advanced 3D printers, which are able to print to an accuracy of micrometers or even nanometers must be used. Existing 3D printing techniques allow the fabrication of complex multifunctional structures unimaginable in conventional manufacturing. In general, the future success of microscale and nanoscale 3D printing depends not only on multifunctional materials and printing techniques, but also on smart designs for complex structures. Engineers need to understand advanced materials and structures, as well as additive manufacturing processes. More importantly, they need to master creative design. They can learn from the many structures that already exist in nature and adapt them to engineered structures. The bio-inspired phenomenon of dry adhesion, often referred to as the gecko effect, is one of the more salient examples.
Martin D. Burke from the University of Illinois headed a team that has constructed a molecule-making 3D printer for chemicals. The machine represents a major breakthrough in the field of chemistry, being able to break down very complex molecules into basic chemical building blocks. Each of these blocks can be visualized as a different Lego brick. They may be totally different from one another, but they all share the same connectors. The 3D printer uses a unique technique to automate the procedure of connecting these building blocks one at a time. By applying this process, the printer can utilize over 200 different building blocks, along with thousands of other molecules, to print literally billions of different organic compounds. According to Burke, it can even synthesize chemicals that have never before been created by humans.
Electronics development represents an important area of potential application for microscale and nanoscale 3D printing. The next generation of lightweight, high-performance, micro-electronic devices (such as smartphones, tablets, and sensors), which will form the physical infrastructure of the emerging Internet of Things, will be produced with significant help from 3D printers. 3D printers support a broad range of functional materials, including conductive inks, dielectrics, polymers, and adhesives, and can deposit these materials on low-temperature substrates, enabling a sizable range of applications.
Lithium-ion microbatteries the size of a grain of sand can also be created with 3D printing. A joint team from Harvard University and the University of Illinois has printed accurately interwoven bundles of miniature battery electrodes thinner than a single human hair. Among other things, batteries of this size could be used as an energy source for nanorobots.
An organization called the Open Source Nano Replicator Initiative plans to create the world's first nano replicator. Essentially, this is a machine that can 3D print virtually anything, from a hamburger to a gold ring. The smallest constituent units of matter, atoms, would be used as the building blocks. Solids, liquids, plasma, and even gases could be printed. However, the technology aspect is a problem that still awaits resolution. The organization's goal is to develop the technology for this type of 3D printer by the year 2030.
Other interesting studies involve biomimetics, by which 3D items are printed that mimic the biostructures of (among other things) the lotus plant, salvinia seaweed, and sharkskin. These can be fabricated directly, via a process known as two-photon lithography. In this case, the 3D printer uses liquid resin containing molecules that cause the liquid around them to harden into a polymer as it is exposed to a laser.
Macro Applications for 3D Printing
An Italian project called the World's Advanced Saving Project (WASP) was initiated in 2012, with the goal of building a 3D printer that can create houses from common materials like clay. The company has already built large Delta 3D printers with special extruders. Previous models were 6 or 8 meters tall, while the Giga Delta is 12 meters tall, and able to 3D print cylindrical habitable structures up to 6 meters in height using a process similar to the potter wasp, which constructs its nest from mud. Given the minimal material costs, this project could prove to have a highly positive impact, especially in developing countries. Adequate housing is a worldwide problem that is expected to become much worse in the coming years, due to rapid urbanization and poor urban planning. According to the United Nations, approximately three billion people will need proper housing and access to basic infrastructure, such as water and sanitation systems, by 2030. These types of printers could to some extent alleviate the housing shortage. Unsurprisingly perhaps, the WASP has begun to cooperate with the European Space Agency on the construction of lunar colonies using lunar regolith.
The world's largest 3D printer to date was built in China. The printer can print objects up to 40 meters long, 10 meters wide, and 6.7 meters tall. This 3D printer uses recycled concrete from construction waste, meaning that the printing process is significantly friendlier to the environment than traditional construction.
A Dutch design company has taken a unique and innovative approach to 3D-printer-aided construction. It has developed computer-guided robotic arms tipped with welders in order to 3D print a steel bridge over a canal in Amsterdam. These robotic arms print using steel, stainless steel, aluminium, bronze, and copper. The printing should begin in 2017, and approximately two months after, the robots, working on opposite banks of the canal, should meet in the middle to join the two halves of the bridge.
In addition to buildings and bridges, many far more sophisticated large objects can now be printed. In the U.S. for example, the Strati car for Local Motors has already been fully 3D printed.
What Does the 3D Printing Market Looks Like?
Our visits to 3D printing events assured us that the possible uses for 3D printing are virtually unlimited. New printer models appear every year, allowing innovative professionals to push the envelope. Not yet widely known to the public, but important for the future, microscale and nanoscale 3D printers will help scientists in various fields to accelerate and augment their research projects, while large-format 3D printers will find more visible placement in construction and manufacturing.
IDC also sees great future potential for companies offering 3D printing as a service. High-end 3D printers will be needed particularly for the aforementioned macroscale and microscale applications. Despite the fact that the price of 3D printers has been dropping consistently over the years, companies need to understand that buying just one high-end machine is still an investment of tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars. Thus for experimental and research and development purposes, outsourcing the 3D printing process will, in many cases, be the most viable and affordable option. Established 3D printing companies invest in several additive printing systems simultaneously. They can print products on demand using many different types of materials, and also provide 3D printing advisory services.
According to IDC research, the 3D printing market in Central and Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and Africa (CEMA) is expected to grow to over 19,500 units sold in 2015. For more CEMA and worldwide 3D printing market data and information, please contact Zdenek Krouzel (zkrouzelidc.com).
Authors: Zdenek Krouzel (Senior Research Analyst, Imaging Devices & Document Solutions, CEE), and Martin Kuban (Senior Research Analyst, IDC Manufacturing Insights, CEMA)