3-D printing has been the latest and greatest trend in nearly every technical industry. What is 3-D printing, and why is it such a game changer? Years ago, you would have to design a prototype on blueprints, then ship it off to a machinist to get it built, just to find out that you cannot use the prototype, or that it does not satisfy your end goal, resulting in starting the process over again. THis was a very time consumptive process. Now, I can design something on computer animated design software (CAD) like Solidworks and have a working prototype of this thing by the end of the day. What used to take weeks, now takes hours. That is why 3-D printing is the biggest rage, especially in industries like engineering.
So what does this translate into? We have seen 3-D printing grow in exponential popularity in recent years due to time savings, cost savings, and overall success in industries that design things. We are just now starting to see the values of 3-D printing beyond the prototyping and design phases, but now are seeing it as an “instant production machine.”
An article published this week titled Planning a larger role for 3-D printing described how the Air Force is “finalizing a strategic plan to integrate 3-D printing technology into nearly every aspect of its airpower sustainment mission.” The Air Force, in essence, is creating a system to utilize 3-D printers, which can print anything from plastics to metals, which will be through the process of additive machining. Additive machining is essentially creating parts from CAD files to supplement repairs in a system or design through creating while designing/repairing.
The Air Force is not so much planning to use these revolutionary printers for design, but more so for things like “Replacement engine parts, for example, that are currently bought, shipped to the depot, stored in inventory and pulled when needed could instead be printed on demand directly at repair and overhaul sites as 3-D printing advances.” The article goes on to say that technologies like this are especially important for planes like the B-52, which has been around for years, and no longer have parts being manufactured for them.
The 3-D printer is enabling us to repair and design things at cheaper rates than before, which is making our overall design process both faster and more affordable, which eventually is making technology progress further, faster. With that, what other possibilities do we hold for 3-D printing?
Last year, an article was published saying that “The International Space Station’s 3-D printer completed the first phase of a NASA technology demonstration by printing a tool with a design file transmitted from the ground to the printer. The tool was a ratchet wrench.” Sure, a wrench is not much, but look at where we have progressed from: sending every tool into space to simply sending raw materials into space to print anything that we want, from Earth. We are saving fuel and allowing more diverse things to go into space instead of packing a tool that we “might” use later on. That to me, is incredible.
Another random place that 3-D printers have found a home? Surgery. Surgeons are using 3-D printers to make custom arteries, veins, and even skin. Surgeons are printing things that are going into people while people are open. If that does not say something about the power of a 3-D printer, I don’t know what is.
From space to surgery to repairing old planes with instant fixes, 3-D printing is extending beyond the design process to places that we never imagined. With that, what can be next? Where can we take printers, and what can we do with them? The possibilities seem endless, and who knows, maybe someday there is a solution to world hunger in there, or that tool we need on Mars, or that one thing that is can save someone’s life, which is needed immediately in a life saving situation. The bounds are endless, and realistically, it sounds like something just replaced the wheel as the largest contributor to society.
“Space Station 3-D Printer Builds Ratchet Wrench To Complete First Phase Of Operations.” NASA. NASA, 20 Dec. 2014. Web. 20 Oct. 2015.
Lewis, Tanya. “7 Cool Uses of 3D Printing in Medicine.” LiveScience. TechMedia Network, 4 Feb. 2013. Web. 20 Oct. 2015.
“Planning a Larger Role for 3-D Printing.” U.S. Air Force. U.S. Air Force, 19 Oct. 2015. Web. 20 Oct. 2015.