Kyle Schurman
Jan 23, 2012

3D printing gains traction in manufacturing, entertainment and consumer products

While 3D movies and 3D TVs have become commonplace, the most practical application of 3D may eventually involve creation of objects through 3D printing techniques.

3D printing development has involved a variety of high-tech components in the past few years, most of which show great promise. Many of the original 3D printing techniques involve engineering complex parts for manufacturing out of plastic and resin, and those remain popular uses for 3D printing. For example, GE has recently begun printing the parts required to construct the fuel injectors in jet engines.

Other newer 3D techniques are more entertainment-based. Imagine 3D has developed a 3D printer that creates chocolate candies, for example. And Sony Pictures is using a 3D printer to speed the process of creating the parts for the clay characters in “The Pirates! Band of Misfits,” an upcoming claymation animated movie.

So does 3D printing have a bright future? It certainly appears that 3D printing is well on its way to finding successful applications.

A 3D printer takes a substance, such as a plastic, and prints a thin layer of it onto a base. Each layer builds on top of the previous layer, eventually creating the shape of an object. The printing technique can be made just as precise as the 3D design software used to develop the object.

Almost any type of material can be used as the “ink” in the 3D printers, as evidenced by the chocolate candy referenced earlier. GE is using cobalt-chrome powder in its 3D printer, fusing the powder to create the jet engine parts. The ability to use a variety of materials in the 3D printers is another reason they appear to be headed toward a strong position in a variety of industries.

Certainly, 3D printing is an expensive proposition at this time. For example, the printer for the chocolate candy is expected to carry a price tag of about $3000. That type of expense likely will hold back this type of technology for the near future, at least when other methods exist for doing a similar job. However, it’s just as probable that improvements in printing technologies will lead to a lower price for the 3D hardware at some point down the road.

In areas of manufacturing where no other options exist, such as with the GE 3D printing of jet engine parts, the technology is a great breakthrough. Things that designers can see on a computer screen will be able to be created with extreme precision and with virtually no waste. That’s something that legacy machining techniques often cannot duplicate.

For parts that are complex and expensive to manufacture in small quantities, 3D printing techniques can give manufacturers something they’ve never had before: The ability to create parts 'on demand,' where replacements can be made as needed. In addition, parts for older machines might never disappear. Any time you need a new part, you could just have one printed -- no matter how old the machine is -- as long as a precise digital design of the part is available.

The ability to create these specialized parts might end up being the greatest reason that 3D printing is surely headed for a promising future. This could lead to a whole new industry of service businesses. With 3D printing technologies still in a relatively exploratory phase, there’s little known about exactly which directions this technique will travel. If the early designs are any indication, however, 3D printing will have a great effect on a wide range of industries, both important, as with jet engine parts, and whimsical, as with chocolate candies and claymation movie characters. The possibilities for 3D printing are almost endless.

More people might be familiar with 3D movies, but it looks like 3D printing will ultimately be the more useful technology … with or without those funny-looking glasses.