Robert Plant

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3D Printing – Industry and Product Disruptor or Enabler?

Robert Plant, Ph.D

3D printing, or additive printing to give it is alternative name, is the layering of materials such that it creates an overall physical structure. While the basic technology based on thermoplastics is becoming commonly available at a price point that allows schools and businesses to experiment with it, the technology itself is rapidly evolving.

One dimension of change is the material basis of the printed subject. Printing takes place on a variety of media including plastic films, ceramics and metal alloys. To produce alloys such as stainless steel with bronze small droplets of glue are dropped onto layers of stainless steel powder; the powered model then undergoes an infusion process where the glue is replaced by bronze thus creating the compound metal; this material can be used in the creation of objects such as turbine impellers. Other major breakthrough materials technologies include those used in 3D bioprinting. Researchers in tissue engineering utilizing polymers such as Poly(ethylene glycol)-diacrylate (PEGDA) to create products such as invertebrate disks, currently in trials on rats.

The second dimension of change is that of printing accuracy; just as with silicon computer chip fabrication where the number of transistors on a silicon wafer follows Moore’s law, 3D printing is undergoing a similar transformation in terms of the granularity of the printing process; for stainless steel additive printing accuracy rates are +/- 1% for print layers of 0.1mm are now standard; however research into nanoscale 3D printing is underway and objects with widths as small as 10nm have been produced, using metallic physical vapor deposit methods; by researchers looking at placing even more transistors on a computer chip.

These advances have significant implications in the production of a wide range of objects currently produced using standard methods. More importantly the 3D approach frees up designers from existing production methodology constraints allowing them to be highly creative. This combination of design and execution thus has the potential for a significant paradigm shift in product creation.

For example, a recent innovation is the production of ‘lightpaper,’ a product that sandwiches a combination of ink and miniature LEDs on a layer of conductive material which allows the LEDs to light up when power is applied. This product is typical of the revolutionary and disruptive transformation that 3D technologies can have upon an industry. The company has literally reinvented the light bulb! While the product, scheduled to come to market in 2015, may not replace all the worlds’ light bulbs overnight, the potential disruption to traditional manufacturers of lighting is imminent and requires a response from that sector in order for them not to get rapidly disrupted.

The advancement of 3D printing technology is occurring at many levels. In the low tech 3D printing sector, projects such as the creation, in 2014, of full sized houses in eastern China by WinSun company, has the potential to disrupt the traditional housing industry. The company’s giant printers use cement and construction waste to create environmentally friendly and cost effective housing. While the advanced technology sector of 3D printing also has the potential to disrupt and transform areas such as healthcare. For example, Chinese companies have created cutting edge 3D technologies in the field of tissue engineering. Regenovo Biotechnology Co in conjunction with Hangzhou Dianzi University has created the first 3D printer to print multiple tissue samples including liver units and human ear cartilage. While the research is still experimental researchers are expecting fully functioning organs to be available within a decade.

However, as these technologies advance there are several factors that need to be overcome in order for their deployment to be successful. These include fundamental support of standards and protocols for successful data sharing between researchers; platform developers, and manufactures to occur. This will allow systems to be interoperable and the products reproducible anywhere with exactly the same specifications. This is vital for quality and safety concerns, not only in the production of medical tissue products but for any product, from aircraft parts to human dwellings. Additionally, while patents and intellectual property need to be secured by the innovators the processes and techniques that result in a product need to be openly accessible for that product to be acceptable. For example, implanting a human organ created through a 3D print process will require that those processes be thoroughly documented to internationally accepted standards in order for verified and achieve acceptance by the recipient.

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