The most creative applications of 3D printers

  3D PRINTING is becoming a classic attraction at technology fairs. Manufacturers are perfecting and making cheaper devices that they are already trying to sell to end consumers by appealing to their hobbies (such as crafts and model making) or to their hearts (creating personalized toys). But beyond playful use, this promising technology already has very innovative and creative applications in fields as diverse as healthcare, space exploration, education, and art. Here are some examples:

  SPACE PARTS. NASA plans to send 3D printers into space for astronauts to manufacture the needed parts. This would make it possible to somehow “teleport” objects for the inhabitants of the International Space Station, from Christmas presents from their family to sophisticated gear parts.

  EDUCATIONAL MODELS. For high school biology classes or even medical schools, replicas of human body parts could be printed to aid their study. 3D printing can also be applied to learning about art or human evolution. It is already possible to bring a replica of Michelangelo’s David into the classroom for analysis, drawing, or manipulation. Reproductions of prehistoric objects found in paleontological sites can also be produced.

  CONSTRUCTION. In addition to building models, which make it possible to perfect details before construction and see the changes in successive three-dimensional prints, there is already an experimental technology called “Contour Crafting,” which combines Geographic Information System data with 3D printing to be able to apply this technology to buildings in earthquake-sensitive areas.

  PROSTHESIS. In collaboration with a company that makes implants and a manufacturer of metal additives, researchers from Belgium and the Netherlands have joined forces in a pioneering project to develop a jaw prosthesis. They have already succeeded in recreating a patient’s jaw with a 3D printer adapted to use powdered titanium (instead of plastic). They then coated it with a bioceramic material to prevent implant rejection.

  CLOTHING AND FOOTWEAR. The Internet is starting to fill up with proposals for making one’s attire using 3D printing. The textile market sees a new field in these products, although their acceptance on a large scale remains to be seen. Currently, two startups are dedicated to it: Electroloom and Open knit. The former already creates fashion with different raw materials, such as polymer fabric, and is starting to test with a range of more common synthetic and natural materials. The latter allows customers to create clothing from their designs, which they materialize with a device adapted to print yarn and wool.

  ART. The field in which creativity plays a key role has not been slow to adopt this new technology. The 3D universe has been present at art fairs for years: artists use 3D printed objects for computer-animated works or video clips, in which they experiment with new aesthetics and languages. 3D printing makes it possible, for example, to quickly implement multiple iterations of designs (based on mathematical formulas) to achieve animated sculptures, which are curious at rest and even more surprising when in motion. Beyond “utilitarian” applications, this technology makes possible new ways of expressing ideas, feelings, or thoughts in the form of three-dimensional art.

  How to print objects?

  All you need is a computer with a 3D design program. You don’t even need to have a printer that will turn a design into a physical object (from a cathedral or an urban planning project to a puppy or a toy train), as online services print these 3D models and send them to your home.

  The primary mechanism of this printing system is always the same. The three-dimensional object is created layer by layer from a drawing, which is then fed into the computer with the help of CAD (computer-aided design) programs. To print it, the computer separates the object into flat layers, printed one by one. It is unnecessary to be an expert in CAD programs since there are simple and free programs, such as Google SketchUp or Blender.

  Instead of ink, 3D printers use various polymers as printing material, adding layers. When all the layers have been printed, the completed part is removed. Most of the current models are of two types: injection and compaction. In the case of injection printers, resins are injected in a liquid state and then treated with ultraviolet light. Acrylic-based photopolymers with additional flexibility, resistance, or color are used. This technology has been the first to inject two different materials into the same print, allowing the creation of digital materials with “a la carte” properties.

  In the compacting system, layers of powdered material (plaster or cellulose) are added, which can be compacted with ink, making it possible to print objects in different colors. In reality, as a result, it is fragile; cyanoacrylate or epoxy resins are usually infiltrated into the piece to give it the necessary hardness. Those made with cellulose powder are typically injected with an elastomer to provide flexibility.

  Compaction can also be done with a laser, which transfers energy to the powder and thus causes it to polymerize. In the latter case, it must then be immersed in a liquid to solidify the object. The pieces are more resistant than those made with ink, although the process is more expensive.




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