One of the most important technological inventions of the last decade is certainly the 3D printer. It is increasingly present in the laboratories of universities to help research activities, in hospitals to recreate human organs and in the most advanced companies to quickly build specific components. Domestic use is also becoming increasingly common thanks to a reduction in retail prices for these innovative printers.
By observing how these printers are used in the most advanced applications, one can perceive an extreme potential for the future thanks to the wide-ranging benefits of 3D printers. Although some uses are easily imaginable, many are incredible and unexpected.
1. 3D printing in medicine
3D printing in medicine is now a reality that allows better management of diseases and their impact on the patient even if there are still many aspects to be defined, such as the development of technical standards that guide the implementation.
The main fields of application today are in maxillofacial surgery 3D printing and modeling are used to align bone fragments, find correct angles for surgical corrections. The units are also used to print 3D models that can pre-fold titanium plates and other support structures. In orthopedics, 3D printing is used to make custom cutting guides that fit exactly to the patient’s bone and accurately indicate to the surgeon where to cut during surgery.
In cardiac surgery, the 3D printed model helps to understand complicated surgical procedures for patients and their families, as well as helping the entire operative team and the post-surgical care team to better understand the intervention. The application has clear benefits for the patient. Medical companies also use the printers to develop devices that are calibrated to the actual needs of the medical team.
3D printing in the medical field is a formidable tool thanks to the ability to simulate everything. With a 3D printer, you can create customized anatomical models using the real data of each patient to intervene on specific diseases. The specialist can perform difficult interventions before executing them on the patient and can discuss it better with the patient to achieve a consensus. This is thanks to the model created on the basis of the images of CT and tomography.
3D printing makes it possible to simulate soft tissues, muscles, cartilage, bones, reproducing them in a 3D printed model that can include all the elements necessary to train health professionals and the entire medical team, including visual and tactile details. Likewise, with the printer, you can produce orthodontic aligners, surgical guides, hearing aids, prosthetics, orthoses, exoskeletons and much more.
2. Ensures flexibility
3D printing ensures flexibility in three forms, including personalization, variety of the range and volumes generated. Greater personalization of products and services implies a greater dependence on the needs of individual customers. A wide range of products or services offered entails greater use of modularity and re-use levers to reduce the variability of their activities and complexity.
3D printing for the production of components on demand could be an interesting opportunity for many companies. To ensure the appropriate level of service, companies are traditionally forced to produce or purchase and then store large quantities of materials without having any certainty about the actual use of the same.
A further case of interest is represented by applications related to the arms sector where it is increasingly common for companies to look to additive technologies to create particular components and finishes on specific customer requirements.
This is aimed at making each product unique. To this end, these companies often turn to external service providers without having the need to internally own the technology.
3. Improving the quality of products
The printers make it easier to develop products with increased functionality (or completely different from current models). The products can have superior properties and performance (reliability, durability, compliance and more). Users can take advantage of more complex geometries and shapes, improved aesthetics and increases personalization of the product.
In this case, therefore, the benefits allow greater differentiation with respect to competitors. As a result, companies can offer innovative solutions that are not easily imitable in the short term. 3D printing allows the creation of components and products with superior performance compared to the same made with traditional subtractive technologies.
This aspect is linked to the possibility of creating complex shapes and geometries that are not achievable with subtractive methods, sometimes also reducing the weight of the product, improving its mechanical characteristics.
4. Reduction of production time
This form of printing helps streamlines business processes, thus reducing design and production time. This generates a competitive advantage, which is not only related to creating different and non-imitable products but allowing companies to reduce overall time-to-market of the product, thus offering a better service to the customer.
This is one of the most sought-after benefits of 3D printers by companies who want to reduce design and prototyping times. This is possible thanks to the ability of 3D printers to create the piece (prototype) directly from the 3D model. This eliminates the need to create equipment, tools and molds. For example, Ford reduced its lead times from several months (needed to make molds for its engines and chassis) to a couple of weeks, thus reducing the cost of these preliminary tests by several tens of thousands of dollars.
For many products whose short (a few years at most) useful life is subject to strong trends, the possibility of reducing design and prototyping times from ten weeks to about two represents a truly remarkable competitive lever.
5. Cost benefits
The ability to contain costs and then put products on the market at competitive prices has been the lever of success for many companies in any industry. Although the shift towards economies of scope (rather than scale) has caused the awareness of acting on the differentiation levers, for several sectors the search for greater efficiency has nevertheless remained a priority.
The additive technologies allow companies to achieve this objective with interesting results. This can translate to the reduction of incoming raw materials, reduction of waste and non-compliance and increasing energy efficiency. These are just some of the possible benefits that fall into this category.
Some companies make the production or assembly process more efficient thanks to the possibility of creating different components in a single printing process. The turbine nozzles of GE Aviation are now produced in a single production step. With traditional technologies, it was necessary to produce 20 components separately and to assemble through joints and welds (notoriously the main sources of loss of efficiency of the products as well as a primary cause of faults and defects).
3D printing encourages users to be more creative and original. A great contribution of these printers is their ability to materialize ideas in real three-dimensional objects.
3D design ensures a change of mentality in the students and professionals alike who must solve any possible obstacles that arise by applying creativity, imagination and metacognition to achieve the desired objective.
8. Participation and gamification
3D printers turn the learning experience into a much more interesting and participatory process. They have multiple benefits in the teaching-learning process as evidenced by the great variety of experiences that are already taking place in centers around the world and in classes of any level.
9. Cooperative and collaborative learning
With cooperative learning, users not only teach others but also consolidate their own learning. In this type of learning, the one who benefits most is the one who teaches. The possibility of learning through practice and seeing the real results of designs generates more interest and motivation. This is especially interesting in the case of students with attention problems who manage to improve their ability to concentrate.
In short, moving from theoretical classes to one’s own creation can be a great incentive in the learning process. To clarify concepts or provided explanations, the three-dimensional pieces can be of great help as they facilitate students to better understand complex content or processes.
This type of printing eliminates the need for an industrial mold to start production. The digital file that models the object replaces the industrial mold. If you have an idea, you will come out with an object, this is the promise of 3D printing that allows to you to go from the 3D file to the object, from megabit to the atom. The result is a strong potential for personalization of objects, which is the heart of this technological revolution.
3D printing allows you to work a concept through successive iterations. Conceive and model an idea of the object, launch the production process in a series of this first version, test this series with a network of customers, improve the product on the basis of customer feedback and restart the project in the middle of the series. This ability to test and redo allows the optimization of the product to ensure its commercial success but also keep control over the stock.
Advanced industries, such as aeronautics or aerospace use 3D printing to reduce the costs and production time of custom parts. These productivity gains now apply to intermediate industries adopting 3D printing.
Charles Stephenson received a Masters Degree in Engineering from MIT University. Charles has been working in the Industrial 3D Printing industry for over 5 years. Charles regularly contributes content to several 3D Printing websites including Pirate3D.com.