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What’s next in 3D printing?

It’s already become a cliché to say that 3D printing, or additive manufacturing, will revolutionize manufacturing and supply chains. From prosthetic limbs to automation parts, this disruptive technology is quickly amassing a dazzling array of applications. Here, John Young, APAC sales director at automation parts supplier EU Automation, looks at four novel applications that sound like they are from the future.

What’s next in 3D printing?
Four novel additive manufacturing applications on the near horizon.

Outer space
In 2017, a rocket was launched into space from New Zealand. Although some descriptions of the rocket as the ‘first 3D printed rocket in space’ were slightly wide of the mark, the launch was a major milestone in 3D printing. This was the first to be powered by an engine manufactured almost entirely from 3D printing.

Fast forward four years, and we are much closer to the world’s first fully 3D printed rocket. LA-based startup Relativity Space looks set to claim the mantle of first 3D printed rocket, with a launch planned for winter 2021. The company had to build the world’s largest 3D printer to achieve this aim. Whether it is aerospace or spacecraft, 3D printing is really taking off.

Battlefields of the future
Historically, military spending has always been a major driver of technological innovation and the list of 3D printing applications in the military sector is growing. The US military has already 3D printed parts and components for fighter jets. The Marines, meanwhile, have tested a 3D printer that can construct entire buildings from quick-drying concrete.

The first 3D printed submarines have already proven successful. The proof-of-concept was able to cut production costs by a staggering 90 percent, with new subs able to be manufactured in a matter of days. New areas of possibility are quick to emerge for the military, including the possibility of 3D printed titanium armoured vehicles.

Obsolescence management
The increasing pace of technological development makes obsolescence a growing problem for both consumers and manufacturers. Businesses risk having to pay for costly equipment upgrades if a spare part or component that needs replacing is obsolete. Pairing with a reliable automation parts supplier like EU Automation can offer a solution to this problem.

3D printing might offer another solution. We are already seeing components being 3D printed to keep equipment up and running. This is especially useful in the food processing industry, where the cost of unplanned downtime is especially problematic. For example, the Australian Meat Processor Corporation partnered with Markforged and Konica Minolta to establish a 3D printing service model to help Australian red meat processors 3D print equipment parts, the first of its kind in the world.

The fourth dimension
Scientists are now able to combine smart materials with 3D printing, providing what some refer to as 4D printing. This technology offers functionalization over time, meaning 4D printed objects can change shape or colour, modifying in response to external stimuli. We have already discussed the use of 3D printing for implants, but imagine if these implants could offer the ability to heal or repair themselves?

If you think that sounds like an idea plucked from a computer game, you might be surprised to learn that 4D printing is not simply a theoretical possibility. NASA has been developing woven metal fabrics that change shape and are foldable, while Airbus has been investigating how 4D printed components might improve the performance of aeroplanes.

3D printing is already on the way toward revolutionizing manufacturing and supply chains. What is most remarkable is that so many of the applications that are already in use sound as if they are taken from science fiction novels. Although disruptive technologies produce winners and losers, the net impact of this technology for manufacturing and wider society can surely only be positive.

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