Three-dimensional printing, or 3D printing, has been steadily transforming how the world designs, produces, and consumes products. Since its inception (supported by corresponding development strides in 3D-modeling software and 3D design services), 3D printing has evolved from a niche manufacturing method to a versatile tool that can revolutionize traditional production processes.
This article will explore the diverse applications of 3D printing across various sectors, including healthcare, automotive, construction, and consumer goods.
What Is 3D Printing?
3D printing is the process of creating or generating three-dimensional physical objects. It is an additive manufacturing technology because of the way it produces physical 3D objects: It creates an object layer by layer.
3D printing requires three things: a 3D model (a 3D digital representation of the object to be printed), a 3D printer, and software that will actualize the conversion of the digital 3D model into a physical 3D object — i.e., send print instructions to a 3D printer.
It has other requirements, of course. For one, a 3D printer needs material to build with, the same way an inkjet printer needs ink to produce its output. 3D printers can use plastic, metal, ceramic, and even paper. These materials can be in filament, powder, liquid resin, or (in the case of paper 3D printers) pulp form.
3D printing also requires post-processing. After generation, 3D objects may need to be sandblasted to remove excess powders and materials, polished for shine and texture, and colored to attain the desired aesthetic.
4 Commonly Used 3D Printing Technologies
There are four major 3D printing technologies: Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM), Stereolithography (SLA), Color Jet Printing (CJP), and HP Multi-Jet Fusion (MJF). Each of these has its unique capabilities and applications. For instance, FDM offers affordability and material versatility, SLA excels in high-resolution, intricate parts, CJP produces full-color, highly detailed models, and MJF delivers strong, functional parts with complex geometries.
1. Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM)
FDM is an extrusion-based 3D printing technology that builds objects one layer at a time by depositing thermoplastic material through a heated nozzle. An FDM printer heats and melts plastic filament then extrudes the melted material onto a build platform, where it cools and solidifies to form one layer of the 3D object it is printing.
FDM is ideal for producing functional prototypes, manufacturing aids, and low-cost custom parts. Its benefits include material versatility, ease of use, and affordability. However, FDM may not be suitable for applications requiring intricate details or smooth surface finishes.
2. Stereolithography (SLA)
SLA is a vat photopolymerization technique that uses ultraviolet (UV) light to cure liquid resin so it will form a 3D solid object. A build platform is submerged into a vat of photopolymer resin, and a UV laser traces the object’s cross-sectional pattern on the resin’s surface, causing the liquid resin to polymerize (i.e., harden). The platform then moves up incrementally (one layer at a time), and the process repeats until the object is complete.
SLA is well-suited for producing high-resolution, intricate parts with smooth surface finishes, making it ideal for applications such as jewelry, dental models, and highly detailed prototypes. However, SLA-printed parts may be more brittle than those produced using other 3D printing technologies.
3. Color Jet Printing (CJP)
CJP is a powder bed fusion technology that uses a fine powder material and a color inkjet print head to create full-color 3D objects. The print head deposits a colored binding agent onto a thin layer of powder, bonding the particles together. The build platform lowers, another layer of powder is added, and the process repeats until the 3D object is finished.
CJP excels in creating full-color, highly detailed models and prototypes for applications such as product design, architectural models, and educational aids. However, CJP-produced parts may be less durable and more fragile than parts printed using a different technology.
4. HP Multi-Jet Fusion (MJF)
MJF is a proprietary powder bed fusion technology developed by HP. It uses a combination of thermal inkjet arrays and fusing agents to selectively fuse powder layers into solid objects. The inkjet arrays deposit fusing and detailing agents onto a layer of powder, and an energy source, such as an infrared lamp, fuses the powder particles together.
MJF is ideal for producing strong, functional parts with complex geometries and excellent mechanical properties. It is widely used for creating end-use components, functional prototypes, and manufacturing aids. While MJF offers high precision and strength, it currently has a limited material range compared to other 3D printing technologies.
Use-Case Applications Across Industries
The following are some examples of the wide-ranging applications of 3D printing across industries.
1. Customized Prosthetics
3D printing allows for the creation of personalized prosthetics that accurately fit the patient’s anatomy, enhancing comfort and functionality.
2. Medical Implants
3D printing enables the production of patient-specific implants, such as dental crowns or hip replacements, with complex geometries that are difficult to achieve through traditional manufacturing methods.
3. Surgical Planning and Training
3D printed anatomical models allow surgeons to plan surgeries and practice procedures on patient-specific models, improving surgical outcomes and reducing risks.
4. Human Tissue (and Ultimately Organ) Printing
While this is not commercially available nor approved for human use, 3D printing can generate living tissue. This has been demonstrated in select research laboratories; an astronaut (Andrew Morgan) has even done it in outer space. This requires using bio-ink, a material that can support living cells.
Transport, Aerospace, and Automotive
1. On-Demand Spare Parts
3D printing enables digital warehousing, where transport and automotive companies store digital files of their spare parts instead of actual physical spare parts. These parts can be produced on demand, reducing inventory costs and lead times for transport companies (e.g., rail operators) and vehicle manufacturers.
2. Rapid Prototyping
3D printing facilitates faster and more cost-effective prototyping of car components, enabling manufacturers to iterate designs quickly and bring new products to market faster. It also allows for faster prototyping and tooling processes for aerospace companies, enabling them to accelerate product development and testing.
3. Customized Fabrication
3D printing allows enterprises to create lightweight, complex, and optimized components, such as engine parts and brackets, which can help reduce the overall weight of a vehicle or an aircraft and improve fuel efficiency. Vehicle manufacturers can also utilize 3D printing to offer their customers various customization options.
1. 3D Printed Buildings and Structures
3D printing technology can be used to create entire buildings or structural components, reducing construction time, material waste, and labor costs.
2. Custom Architectural Elements
3D printing allows for the production of intricate and customized architectural elements that would not be feasible to create using traditional methods.
3. Temporary and Emergency Housing
3D printing can be used to quickly construct temporary or emergency housing in disaster-stricken areas or for refugees, providing a fast, cost-effective, and sustainable solution.
1. Customized Products
3D printing enables the creation of personalized consumer goods. Eyewear measured to fit a consumer’s exact temple-to-temple width is possible with 3D printing. Jewelry, footwear, and clothing are other examples of products that may be customized to exact customer specifications and preferences.
2. Small-Batch Production
3D printing allows companies to produce prototypes and small-batch production runs quickly, enabling faster product development and shorter time-to-market.
Exciting Times Ahead
The above are just some examples of the wide-ranging applications of 3D printing across industries. 3D printing can revolutionize manufacturing and production in even more industries.
While 3D printing technology is still relatively new, it is rapidly advancing, with new materials, techniques, and applications being developed all the time. As the technology for 3D printing continues to evolve and becomes more accessible, expect more innovative and disruptive use cases in the future, creating new opportunities for businesses and improving people’s lives.