When 3D printing first took off, it was difficult to imagine how diverse the field would grow. Nowadays, the realm of additive manufacturing is growing daily. In particular, five sectors are advancing rapidly as a result of developments in additive manufacturing. These are healthcare, food, fashion, motorsports and aerospace. Based on estimates, it is believed that soon these industries will incorporate 3D printing as a key component of their operations.
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How rapidly is 3D printing growing?
Typically, we think of 3D printing as a very recent advancement in manufacturing. However, it actually has its roots in the 1970s. In the early 1970s, a man named Johannes F. Gottwald filed the first patent for the liquid metal recorder. This process involved producing objects from liquified metal, which solidified layer by layer, just like modern 3D printers.
Gottwald’s concept was built on by Dr. Hideo Kodama in the 1980s, who suggested using polymers instead of metal, which could be cured using ultraviolet (UV) light. In 1986, Charles Hull and his company, 3D Systems Corporation, released the world’s first commercially-available 3D printer. Since then there have been significant advancements in 3D printing. These are typically to refine the additive manufacturing process to improve speed, efficiency, scale, costs and sustainability.
Based on a study carried out in early 2023 by Hubs, an online manufacturing platform, 3D printing is only set to grow in the coming years. In fact, the study showed that out of 1,035 participants, 71% of respondents indicated that they had increased the use of additive manufacturing in their companies in 2022, compared to 2021. Based on data from this study, the 3D-printing market is projected to grow by 17% to a whopping $19.9 billion in 2023.
Using additive manufacturing to enhance industries
Five industries are being transformed by innovations in 3D printing. Each of these are adopting the tool increasingly and it is likely to be a key component of these industries in the coming years.
Healthcare is an industry where 3D printing is beginning to play a key role. This is already being researched through bioprinting. 3D-bioprinting uses additive manufacturing as a tool to “print” living cells. This is done using bio-inks, which are made of natural or synthetic biomaterials and living cells. These inks are “printed” in layers, just like other 3D-printing systems, to emulate the structures of natural cell tissues.
3D bioprinting can be used across the healthcare field such as in bioengineering and even pharmaceutical development. For example, 3D-printed skin and bone grafts, implants and even organs are being researched for efficacy. Within the realm of pharmaceutical research, 3D-printed tissues can be used to accelerate drug testing. Though these fields are still undergoing much research and development, it is likely that in the next decade, 3D bioprinting will be more prevalent in the healthcare industry.
While 3D-printed food has been around for a while, it has only been used on relatively small scales. Nowadays, with the lowered costs of 3D printers, the technology is being used to create customized foods. This includes producing foods with different textures and flavors, but also controlling nutrient profiles to benefit medical patients and the elderly.
3D-printed meats are also gaining speed. Since the animal agriculture and fishing industries are highly resource-intensive, 3D-printed meats/meat substitutes could be a potential substitute. Through these 3D-printed products, there would be less animal husbandry, which would consequently put less strain on the environment.
3D-printed garments and shoes allow for greater design freedom and customization, as well as less material waste. Footwear is one area that 3D-printing has had a growing role in. For example, in 2021 Adidas revealed their 4DFWD running shoes. These feature 3D-printed midsoles to boost runners’ speed and agility.
Besides footwear, designers such as Julia Koerner and Bastian Müller are now exploring the realm of 3D-printed textiles. These have been developed in recent years and are now being featured at large-scale couture events. For example, the 2019 Met Gala featured a 3D-printed dress by Zac Posen in collaboration with Protolabs and GE Additive.
Since 3D printing allows for enhanced customization and design opportunities, teams from NASCAR, Formula 1 and MotoGP are adopting this tool. They are using additive manufacturing to produce prototypes, tools and even components for their cars. In doing so, they can create components that are lightweight and aerodynamic, thus boosting speed and performance in races.
The aerospace industry has been using 3D printing for a long time, across different realms. This includes manufacturing spare parts and even satellites for space exploration. Research and development is also exploring the possibilities of “printing” lunar and/or Martian habitats.
Currently, 3D printing is being used to speed up rocket production. One such example is the space launch startup Relativity. They have produced their first 3D-printed rocket called Terran 1, which is set to launch in late 2023.
What does the increase in 3D printing mean for sustainability?
As mentioned earlier, modern advancements in the realm of 3D printing are to enhance efficiency and scale, as well as to lower costs and boost sustainability. But how can 3D printing be good for the environment? There are several reasons.
Firstly, 3D printing allows for optimization. This means that items can be designed and manufactured to suit the specific needs of the final product. For example, in the aerospace industry, components are 3D-printed so that they are lightweight, which consequently results in less fuel consumption. By reducing an aircraft’s weight by just 20% leads to 10% improved fuel efficiency. Overall, this has immense benefits for the environment, especially since jet fuels come from fossil fuels that emit harmful greenhouse gases.
Another key reason why 3D printing can be sustainable is because of the nature of additive manufacturing. These processes are typically very efficient and tend to produce less waste than subtractive manufacturing technologies, such as CNC routing.
Additionally, depending on the material(s) used, products can be broken down at the end of their lifetimes. This material can be salvaged and re-manufactured into 3D-printer filaments, which contributes to a circular economy and prevents 3D-printed materials from ending up in landfills.
3D printing also allows for local production to take place on smaller scales. This prevents the reliance on larger production entities, which often require complex logistics and transportation. Through 3D printing, people can create what they need (especially at low volumes) in shorter time frames and without incurring extra costs.
Overall, through advancements in the realm of additive manufacturing, we can push the boundaries of design and production without putting excess strain on the environment.
Images via Hubs