5 Applications Showcasing 3D Printing Innovation

17 October 2019
trend setting applications in 3d printing

Additive manufacturing (AM) is one of the key technologies capable of accelerating innovation for manufacturers. Industries adopting AM are going through a transformation, which brings along new opportunities in product design and manufacturing. 
In today’s article, we’ll be taking a look at some of the recent developments in 3D printing that could set new trends across industries.   

1. A 3D-printed bionic eye 

The human eye is a fascinating piece of engineering, but recreating it proved challenging, due to multiple technological barriers. Now, with the convergence of 3D printing, electronics and biology, the research team from the University of Minnesota found a way to overcome the barriers and created a prototype of an artificial eye.  
This milestone marks a significant step toward creating a bionic eye, that could help blind people see or sighted people see better.

3d-printed bionic eye
[Image credit: University of Minnesota/McAlpine Group]

The prototype of a bionic eye is made up of a hemispherical glass dome on which silver particles were printed. Next, they used semiconducting polymer materials to print photodiodes, which convert light into electrical signals that can be processed and turned into actual images.
Upon testing, the artificial eye worked with 25 per cent efficiency in converting light signals into electrical signals. Researchers say, that it’s the closest we’ve ever been to developing something similar to an actual eye. A multi-material 3D printer, developed by the team, has been the key to achieving this major feat. 
Currently, researchers are working on the next prototype, which will have more light receptors that are even more efficient. They are also looking for a way to print on a soft hemispherical material that can be implanted into a real eye. 
Although it may sound like science fiction, 3D-printed bionic eyes could soon become a reality, marking a new era in regenerative medicine.  

2. 3D printing entire boats and military shelters 

the largest 3d printed boat

3D printing has been recently applied to produce a 7.62 m boat, weighing more than 2 tonnes. The boat, named 3Dirigo, is said to be the largest object that has ever been 3D-printed. The feat was  achieved by the University of Maine’s UMaine Advanced Structures and Composites Center.  
Large-scale 3D printing is becoming a new trend, as more companies are seeking ways to 3D-print, not only small parts and prototypes, but also large structures, more economically. 
The 3D-printed vessel is an exciting indicator of this trend gaining traction. The boat was created in one solid piece during nonstop printing over 72 hours. When using traditional manufacturing methods, the manufacturing of the boat could take several weeks or even months.
The extrusion-based 3D printer, which created the boat, has been designed to work with bio-based materials, specifically a blend of plastic and wood cellulose. The new sustainable bioderived composites are said to be recyclable and economical. 
Combining these materials with large-scale 3D printing is not a coincidence. 3D printing is also known for being a sustainable manufacturing option, due to reduced material waste and faster production closer to the point of need.  
In addition to the 3D-printed boat, the researchers also introduced a 3D-printed 3.65 m long U.S. Army Communications shelter. This project was a demonstration of a collaboration between UMaine and the U.S. Army Combat Capabilities Development Command (CCDC) Soldier Center to develop new, rapidly deployable shelters for soldiers.
Ultimately, these developments offer a glimpse into how large-scale 3D printing could accelerate innovation and prototype development in both the marine and military sectors. Beyond these industries, large-scale 3D printing has already proved its usefulness for aerospace, construction and foundry applications

3. Rethinking rocket manufacturing 

Aerospace, in particular, could soon be transformed by large-scale 3D printing, as California-based startup, Relativity Space, is planning to create a rocket, of which around 95 per cent of components will be 3D printed. 
To make its vision a reality, the company has developed Stargate, one of the world’s largest arc-welding metal 3D printers, powered with machine learning and robotics. The technology behind Stargate 3D printer works by melting metal wire as it’s extruded from a nozzle onto a build platform. 

The Stargate 3D printer is designed to produce large rocket parts like fuel tanks [Image credit: Relativity Space]
The Stargate 3D printer is designed to produce large rocket parts like fuel tanks [Image credit: Relativity Space]

With the ability to create components as large as 2.7 m (9 ft.) in diameter and about 4.5 m (15 ft.) high, Stargate will print all the fuel tanks and other large rocket components. For smaller parts, the company is using Selective Laser Melting (SLM) technology. 
By applying 3D printing to manufacture virtually an entire rocket, Relativity Space hopes to greatly reduce the weight of the rocket, which can potentially reduce the cost of launch, whilst increasing payload. Furthermore, 3D printing could enable the company to produce a flight-ready rocket in just two months — an impressive time-frame when it comes to rocket manufacturing. 
Relativity Space is bidding to become the first to launch an entirely 3D-printed rocket into orbit by early 2021. While these plans may have initially seemed far-fetched, the company has been steadily progressing towards its goal. 
For example, the company’s main product, the Terran 1 rocket, has undergone some recent improvements, including a 3 m payload fairing, with twice the volume. Another notable accomplishment includes a recently closed $140m Series C funding, taking the company one step closer to its vision.  
By 3D printing entire rockets, the delivery of rockets could be substantially accelerated, increasing the frequency of launches. This vision is truly ambitious, and if it proves successful, it will be a step towards reimagining how rockets are developed and manufactured. 

4. 3D printing and the future of autonomous mobility

[Image credit: Airbus]

Airbus has partnered with LM Industries to form a start-up called Neorizon, to provide innovative products with a focus on autonomous mobility. To achieve this, the companies are bringing together their expertise in digital manufacturing and polymer and metal 3D printing. 
LM Industries was founded last year (2018) by Local Motors, the company behind some of the industry’s most talked-about 3D-printed vehicles. In 2016, Local Motors 3D-printed Olli, a self-driving shuttle, built with 90 per cent fewer parts than a traditional vehicle, and with 100 per cent recyclable parts. The company uses 3D printing to manufacture and assemble vehicles in local microfactories, thereby achieving more flexible and agile production. 
According to LM Industries, ‘current transport infrastructure and existing mass manufacturing are too inflexible and capital intense to service evolving technology trends and changing consumer demands’.
To provide more flexibility in product development and production, Neorizon will establish a local microfactory, which will allow it to design and manufacture products much faster and with greater flexibility. 
While it’s currently unclear exactly what products the start-up will develop, the focus will likely be on aviation. Currently, there’s a growing interest in using aircraft as flying taxis or delivery vehicles, so these could be one area Neorizon may explore. 
Whatever it is Neorizon develops, a partnership like this serves as yet another indicator of a growing shift towards digital manufacturing, where 3D printing plays one of the key roles. Ultimately, this means that both companies are confident in the potential of AM to help them rethink the future of autonomous mobility. 

5. A new opportunity for 3D printing service bureaus 

In September, Voodoo Manufacturing, a US-based 3D printing service provider, launched Voodoo Clear Aligners, a new dental manufacturing and distribution service.
The company is using Formlabs resin-based technology to build 20,000 aligner moulds a month. By the end of the year, it plans to scale its production to 80,000 moulds a month. 
While surprising, Voodoo Manufacturing’s move into the clear aligner market has been well-grounded. The clear aligner market is experiencing tremendous growth, and Voodoo wants to claim a share. 
In many ways, this growth can be attributed to the introduction of digital technologies, like dental 3D printing
clear aligners

Essentially, clear aligners are the devices used to adjust and straighten teeth. They are inherently individualised products, since the position and shape of each person’s teeth is different. 3D printing is the only technology that enables dental professionals to customise clear aligners cost-effectively through the production of moulds. 
These moulds are then used in a process called thermoforming, whereby a specialised plastic is heated until it becomes pliable and then formed into the shape of the mould. 
It’s estimated that the majority of clear aligners are currently produced using 3D-printed moulds. For such a high-volume application, speed and automation become the two key priorities, which have been at the centre of Voodoo Manufacturing’s business since its inception.  
Other 3D printing service bureaus could take note. With so many different materials and technologies out there, it’s becoming crucial for service bureaus to specialise in certain areas to remain competitive.  
Voodoo Manufacturing’s leap into the clear aligner market points to yet another area where a 3D printing service bureau can establish expertise. As the clear aligner market continues to grow, with more companies joining the game, some other service providers may follow Voodoo Manufacturing’s suit to fill the increasingly lucrative market niche.  

The trend-setting power of 3D printing 

Industries adopting 3D printing are becoming more and more confident with the technology. As confidence grows, companies are willing to experiment with 3D printing to find new applications and business opportunities. This ultimately helps to shape new trends across industries, whether it’s the development of advanced medical products or the production of entirely 3D-printed rockets. 
Clearly, 3D printing, as it’s moving beyond prototyping, has tremendous potential to drive innovation, giving companies not only the opportunity to differentiate themselves from competition, but also to develop something that could become the next big thing.


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