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In September 2015, a 54-year-old cancer patient became the first human to receive a 3D printed implant — a custom-designed rib cage to replace his sternum and pieces of four ribs severely damaged when doctors removed a large tumor. The prosthetic sternum has four thin, flexible rods that bend the same way ribs would during breathing. It was made entirely from titanium, using a $1.3 million metal printer at a government-run lab. The complex prosthetic would have been almost impossible to manufacture through traditional means. From manufacturing to medicine, food to fashion, and electronics to education, 3D printing is reshaping and revolutionizing the way products are developed and produced.
Despite the media attention, there is still a great deal of misinformation about what 3D printing is, what it can do, and what its future may hold. Find out facts and statistics that help define the scope of 3D printing, learn more about advances in the technology and its future possibilities, and discover how a degree in computer science can lead to a career in this exciting and expanding field.
How 3D Printing Works
There has been enough change in the last few years that 3D printing has actually already begun to make quite a dent in the amount of manufacturing going on in the United States.
To understand the impact that 3D printing is having, it’s important to start with a workable definition. 3D printing—also known as “additive manufacturing”—is the process of creating a three-dimensional object by applying, or adding, material in successive layers through the control of a computer. The 3D printing process, in basic terms, includes the following steps:
- The manufacturer creates a digital model of the object to be produced, normally by using a computer-aided design (CAD) program and employing some form of 3D scanning.
- The CAD model is converted into an appropriate file format, such as STL (stereolithography).
- The STL file is transferred to the computer that directly controls the 3D printer (a process similar to transferring a file to a standard printer when printing a document).
- The 3D printer is readied for the job. Containers are loaded with the appropriate printing materials (polymers and binders, for example), and a foundation tray for the finished object is set up.
- The printer builds the object, layer by layer. This process can take hours, or even days, depending on the size and complexity of the object and the materials used to create it.
- Once the 3D printer has completed the building process, the object is removed from the machine. The object may require some post-manufacturing actions, such as brushing and polishing, as well as the removal of water-soluble supports. The object may also require time to cure before it can be used.
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Where Can You Find 3D Printing Technology Today?
3D printed objects are already being used in a wide range of fields, from health to home décor, and the number is growing. Below is a list of some of the most common industries that use 3D printing in some way, along with some of the most creative:Industrial/Manufacturing
The manufacturing industry is the leader in 3D printing. Here, the technology has revolutionizing virtually all sectors, including consumer electronics, aerospace, automotive, defense, and myriad other commercial and consumer products. According to a June 2014 survey by PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), 66.7 percent of manufacturers are currently employing 3D printing in some way, with another 24.7 percent planning to adopt it in the future. While most of these companies are still in the experimental or prototyping stages, PwC estimates 10 percent are using the technology in actual production, and that number is expected to grow over time.Medicine/Health
The match between additive manufacturing and bio devices is natural because you’re dealing with individuals that are different, and that’s one of the advantages to additive manufacturing—making one-of-a-kind parts.
This is probably the field where the most innovative applications of 3D printing technology are happening today. The idea of creating new, living body parts to replace ones that are damaged seems only possible in a sci-fi film, but such projects are underway at universities, hospitals and research centers around the world. These 3D printing projects include bioprint tissues and organs, customized implants and prostheses, anatomical models for surgical procedures, and growing embryonic stem cells.Dentistry
3D printing has been used in dentistry to create custom-designed teeth, bridges and crowns. With advances in materials and processes, it’s possible that dentists will soon be able to produce personalized, 3D printed teeth in their offices, in as little as ten minutes.Construction
The key to using 3D printing in construction is applying the existing technology on a very large scale. China is currently leading the way, with one company, WinSun, purportedly having built ten houses with a 3D printer in just 24 hours, as well as a five-story apartment building. Using industrial and construction waste mixed with cement, parts are printed on an array of 3D printers and then assembled on-site. The company has also partnered with Dubai and in June 2015 announced plans to build the world’s first fully functional 3D printed office building, a project that will result in significantly reduced production time, labor costs, and waste. Similar projects for homes and office buildings are currently planned in the United States and Europe.Art
3D printing and art are two fields that seem to be custom-made for each other. As the availability and variety of printers goes up and the costs of producing 3D printed objects goes down, artists of every kind—sculptors in particular—are taking advantage of 3D technology to stretch the limits. Artists are employing a number of materials for 3D printing, including polymers, clay and metals, in the creation of sculptures, pottery and jewelry.Food
The development of 3D printed, edible products is real and growing. Although limited at the moment to food items such as desserts and pizza, the technology has the potential to expand to the development of highly nutritious foods using alternative sources such as algae and legumes. The resulting products could then be used to help feed large populations in developing regions.Education
Though slower to expand (mostly due to budget and, sometimes, a lack of familiarity), 3D printing is believed to have the potential to enhance school curriculum at all levels, from elementary to college. It has already helped visual learners with graphs, equations, and complex mathematical models. Others classroom areas or topics that 3D printing has touched include geography and geology, replicas of ancient artifacts for hands-on teaching, and art. Additionally, with the right resources, 3D printing can be built into everyday lesson plans, giving educators an opportunity to present information and educational content in creative and interactive ways that were never available in previous generations.
Benefits of 3D Printing
Because 3D printing is relatively new, it can be difficult to separate reality from speculation, but many advantages have already proven themselves. Take a look at some of the most important:
- Cost savings
- Prototyping is an expensive stage in the development of almost any new product. The tooling and retooling necessary to design and produce a succession of prototypes using conventional methods can be cost-prohibitive. As a result, many innovative products never get the chance to reach everyday consumers. Significant cost savings can be found by creating prototypes through the use of CAD design and additive manufacturing.
- Shorter time-to-market
- It was Benjamin Franklin who said, “Remember that time is money.” When it comes to science, technology and especially business, Franklin couldn’t have been more correct. Prototyping can be a time-consuming process; one that may need be to done multiple times before an idea is ready for mass production. In some cases, the rapid prototyping from 3D printing can reduce the development process of a new product from months to days.
- More customization and personalization
- A significant benefit of 3D printing is the ability to create highly customizable products. While in some cases, this benefit may simply help manufacturers cater to customers’ personal wants, it can be more life altering in other situations. In medicine, for example, the customization of obstetric and prosthetic devices can be the difference between a patient maintaining and permanently losing mobility. Or, in the case of creating or replacing a body part or organ, such personalization could potentially increase the chances of a patient’s body accepting the new organ.
- Communication and feedback
- One of the most difficult questions a company must answer when ramping up to manufacture a new product is, “How do we sell this new product to potential investors and consumers?” It’s a question that might be best answered with another: “How can we present our investors and customers with a model of our product that shows exactly how it looks, feels and operates, before we start production?” 3D printing allows manufacturers to do just that—it increases the chances for valuable feedback to fine-tune a product, better assuring its acceptance by consumers once it leaves the assembly line.
Challenges Facing 3D Printing’s Future
Every new technology brings not only a number of exciting benefits and possibilities, but also a slew of new challenges. While 3D printing’s future remains bright, it is important to not overlook the current and potential challenges ahead. Here’s a look at a few:
- Safety, security, and quality standards
- The magic of 3D printing is that it makes designing and building amazing products accessible to anyone with a 3D printer. The flip side, however, is that individuals also gain the means to produce items that may be dangerous to the safety and security of themselves and others. Potential dangers include weapons like guns and knives; non-standardized items, and replacement parts that circumvent the regulatory processes and safety guidelines put in place to control them, as well as counterfeit products that may be of substandard quality.
- Regulations, patents, and infringement
- Design applications for 3D printed products are subject to copyright just like those developed by traditional means. Given the democratized nature of 3D printing production, patent and copyright processes and regulations may become unfeasible, provoking lawsuits and other regulatory issues. It is also illegal for anyone to manufacture or distribute a 3D printed version of a patented item without the permission of the patent holder, raising additional concerns of how the judicial system will handle the inevitable criminal and civil litigation surrounding patent infringement issues.
- High energy consumption
- While promoters tout the potential savings in energy that 3D printing may bring in the future, the current reality is somewhat different. Some types of 3D printers in use today are energy hogs. The Environmentally Benign Manufacturing (EBM) research group at MIT, for example, determined in 2009 that direct-metal laser-sintering (DMLS), a system of 3D printing using metal granules fused together, consumes hundreds of times more electrical power than conventional casting and machining processes. Large-scale metal processes are expected to make substantial gains in energy consumption as research and development continues, but for now, high energy use remains a significant concern.
- Environmental concerns
- Increased energy consumption plays a key role in the continuing reliance on nonrenewable energy sources such as coal and oil, causing real problems for the environment. In addition to high energy consumption, 3D printing poses a number of other environmental challenges, such as air pollution and greater reliance on plastics. While much research is needed to better understand these problems, one study from the Illinois Institute of Technology has indicated that commercial desktop 3D printers in use today emit nanoparticles of plastic that may pose a substantial health risk, and are notoriously difficult to clean up.
Degrees Leading to Careers in 3D Printing
Regarding the educational aspect, all of these things—whether it be additive manufacturing in biomedical applications, or biomedical in industrial applications, or even in other technologies—they are all based on a deep understanding of very fundamental science.
Because it’s still in an experimental phase, most colleges don’t offer degree programs specifically in 3D printing. Colleges and universities are working to catch up, however, with many now offering courses on the topic within engineering and computer science degree programs. For those interested in a career in 3D printing, there are already a number of options available. Below are examples of potential academic paths and careers.
One of the biggest concerns in the 3D printing industry is the need for better and, perhaps most importantly, more user-friendly software to design and manufacture 3D printing products. As a result, the industry has become a top destination for software development professionals. Software developers in this field will write code to help improve 3D printing products as well as work cross-functionally with various teams, typically focusing on important aspects such as testability, maintainability, and scalability.
Animation Art and Design
Animation artists and designers have traditionally been employed to create animation for television, films, video games and the like. The advent of CAD and 3D printing, however, has opened up new job options for these professionals. Employers generally require a bachelor’s degree. In addition to 3D printing, coursework should include drawing, sculpture, and CAD and computer graphics.
3D printing has numerous applications in building design and construction, so it’s no surprise that a degree in architecture can open the door to 3D printing career opportunities. Be sure to look for programs that include concentrations and/or courses in 3D printing and CAD.
Biomedical Engineering and Technology
This discipline combines science and engineering with biology and physiology to analyze and address problems within health and health care delivery. Graduates of this degree can go on to careers focused on developing and improving medical devices and procedures, which can include responsibilities such as creating and evaluating artificial organs, prostheses, or new equipment to maximize human performance.
Engineering is the biggest source of today’s 3D printing professionals. Industrial engineers have traditionally been trained to eliminate waste in production processes and to increase productivity in the industrial environment. This taps into 3D printing as industrial engineers use it to design and build machinery that supports rapid prototyping and standardized production methods.
Because this discipline is a combination of design, construction, and machines it’s an ideal path for those interested in the 3D printing world. A degree in mechanical engineering gives students a strong mathematical background as well as skills and knowledge in applied physics that can be used in 3D printing as well as other fields that depend on math and analytics. Graduates will be able to design and manufacture just about anything, from small individual parts to large-scale systems and devices.
3D printing relies on skills and knowledge in science, technology, engineering, and math (as well as art), making computer programming another solid option for students interested in the field. These professionals use their expertise to write programs that produce solid structures of all shapes and sizes.
CAD or BIM Architect
CAD and BIM architects use software programs to design, generate and manage computer/digital representations of physical structures and infrastructures.
Research and Development (R&D)
R&D professionals explore new materials and processes and come up with new and better ways to develop—or improve—3D devices.
3D Environmental Artist
Architectural and design firms, graphic art firms, and computer game companies look for 3D environmental artists. Most jobs will require extensive experience and/or training in a variety of design software formats.
3D modelers build 3D characters and environments using a variety of software programs. They may be employed to create video games, produce film effects, and design websites, but may also find employment making physical props for movie and television production companies or in creating 3D printed objects for other professionals such as architects, geologists and engineers.
Interior designers are employed to make interior spaces in home and business environments safe, efficient, functional and beautiful. Advances in 3D printing have made it possible to create decorative objects and even furniture that can aid in this pursuit.
Bioprinting can be thought of as a subfield of 3D modeling. The main difference is focus, with 3D bioprinting concerning the production of living human tissue. Individuals in the bioprinting field are responsible for creating models that are used as the basis to 3D print any number of living body parts and even replacement organs.
Prosthesis and Implant Designer
3D printing of prostheses and implants is distinguished from bioprinting in that the devices created are artificial. Prosthesis and implant designers employ a variety of software programs in creating customized implants to suit specific patient needs.
Pharmaceutical technologists employ 3D printing systems to produce highly individualized medications. 3D printing of medications allows for extremely precise dosages that can be accurately reproduced in quantity and in a wide range of formulations (pills, tablets, liquids, etc.).
3D Machine Designer
3D machine designers are professionals employed to keep up with the ever-expanding demand for machines to create products with varying sizes, functions and materials for practically every industry in the market.
As the 3D printing industry expands, colleges and universities are seeking teachers with specific knowledge and experience with 3D printing systems to train future professionals. 3D printing educators may also be employed by private manufacturers to develop courses or workshops dedicated to 3D printing and related technology.
Industrial designers develop ideas and concepts for all types of manufactured products by combining knowledge in business, art and a variety of engineering fields. As 3D printing grows, it will require industrial designers who can integrate 3D printing technologies.
3D Printer Operator
3D printer operators are responsible for all aspects of running and maintaining 3D printing jobs, including setting up the machine and loading it with the proper materials; performing size calibrations; placing the tray and foundations; managing files; tracking the project’s progress; and performing machine maintenance between jobs. Positions in 3D printer operation may require a bachelor’s degree, but many can be obtained with an associate degree or certificate from a two-year community college or vocational training school.
Effects on the Job Market
For the most part, innovations in technology have a positive impact on the job market. There are, however, some challenges when introducing a new industry. Below is a list of some of the benefits and challenges to the job market brought about by the explosion in 3D printing:
- 3D Prototyping and Modeling: The transition from conventional methods of product prototyping and modeling has already resulted in increases in job opportunities for workers trained in CAD and related design programs. However, the days of clay modeling, for example, are numbered and workers skilled in it and other conventional modeling methods will require retraining or may find themselves moving on to other jobs.
- Legal Issues: Questions regarding the ramifications of 3D printing, particularly patent and intellectual property law, are having a growing effect on the legal profession. The U.S. Department of Commerce reports that the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office currently receives about 1,700 applications annually for additive material technologies. This translates into likely growth in law-related occupations, such as attorneys who specialize in the areas of patents and intellectual property.
- Manufacturing Jobs: The long-term effects on the manufacturing of goods due to 3D printing remain uncertain. Many speculate that it will result in fewer conventional manufacturing/assembly line positions globally, but may also spur the return to the United States of jobs outsourced overseas.
- Retail Jobs: According to recent research, the 3D printing industry is expected to grow a staggering 56 percent in 2015. Such data has helped fuel speculation regarding the resulting effects on retail jobs. The question rests on just how pervasive the use of personal 3D printing of consumer goods will become. If individuals begin producing their own goods, there may be a drop in retail sales and, in turn, a decrease in retail jobs. On the other hand, an increase in 3D printer use may expand the need for retail sales forces in the industry itself.
Top Companies Leveraging 3D Printing
It’s estimated that approximately two-thirds of all companies today employ some level of 3D printing, but a few are true frontrunners, having taken the lead in using 3D printing and applying it to their businesses. Here are some notable companies who are leading the pack:
The French aircraft manufacturer is a leader in the use of 3D printed parts in aviation. The company boasts that 3D printing has resulted in lighter parts, which requires less time and fewer materials to produce, with a corresponding drop in the environmental impact. Airbus recently announced that more than 1,000 parts used in the construction of its new A350 XWB aircraft are 3D printed.
Ford Motor Company
The iconic automobile company can justly be described as a 3D printing trailblazer, having purchased the third 3D printer ever made some thirty years ago, in 1986. Since then, Ford has 3D printed over 500,000 parts, a move the company estimates has saved billions of dollars and millions of work hours. Ford additionally uses 3D printing technology in its prototype production.
The corporate powerhouse, General Electric, is a leading manufacturer of jet aircraft engines. GE has reported that in 2016 it will introduce the first 3D-printed parts in one of its aircraft engine platforms. Along with its partners, GE will use 19 3D-printed fuel nozzles in its engine’s combustion system, parts that could not be produced in any other way. Additionally, GE Aviation claims that it will produce more than 100,000 parts by the close of the decade.
Invisalign is a major manufacturer of clear aligners, an orthodontic alternative to conventional braces in the realignment of teeth. According to VentureBeat, Invisalign is the one of the largest users of 3D printing in the medical field today.
Nike is a world leader in the sports apparel industry, particularly when it comes to shoes. What may not be known is that Nike is also a leader in the use of 3D printing in its shoe design and manufacturing processes. A prime example is Nike’s Vapor HyperAgility Cleat, which combines 3D knitting with 3D shoe printing, one of three Nike cleats that employs 3D printing technology in its production.
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