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3D printing is often in news for one reason or another. Whether due to it being hailed as the most disruptive manufacturing technology since steam power or because some bonkers American has built another homemade handgun. There is no doubt the idea of a machine building a complete product right in front of your very eyes is intriguing. So as another Christmas passes by and we still do not have a printer in homes from which we can construct our favourite presents. I thought it would be worth reviewing the technology and seeing how it has progressed from the primitive hobbyist interest that it was a few years ago.

The issue of limited material selection is what has really held 3D printing back. The requirement for very specific thermal properties meant that 3D printers were excellent at producing beautiful, digitally designed objects. But unfortunately, many were about as useful as a chocolate teapot.  This resulted in a poor uptake in the general consumer market, but meant it was well suited for rapid prototyping and 3D printers have found a place in the corner of design studios and schools. Thankfully the story doesn’t end here.

Geniuses from a variety of sectors have embraced 3D printing and been working away quietly in the background evolving the technology and taking its achievements to new heights. A couple of notable areas to mention are; the printing of bio-synthetic scaffolds, that can be used to grow artificial organs for transplants, and 3D printed concrete blocks, which can be used to build complex lightweight structures capable of withstanding earthquakes. I mention these two ‘proof of concepts’ because of the potential impact they pose to our society. Grasping the power to construct organs could turn modern medicine on its head. No longer would we need to search for the cure of a disease, we would simply be able to replace the ‘broken’ parts. Imagine how life could be prolonged without disease. A frightening prospect, but one we might have to deal with in the foreseeable future. As for the importance of concrete, it is used to construct literally every large modern structure. From roads to skyscrapers, to the tunnels of a hyperloop, 3D printing could be used to produce purpose built concrete blocks properties far greater than traditional alternatives. It could mean we would be able to build higher and faster than ever before. It may even prove to be an effective a way to construct bases on foreign planets. The potential market for these technologies is huge and it is obvious why they are being pursued by the entrepreneurial and ambitious.

Personally, I think there is one form of 3D printing that will outshine both examples I have just mentioned, the printing of integrated circuits. In one of my previous articles I mentioned the growing demand for bionic limbs. One of the difficulties in building these limbs is that they must be personalised to the patient receiving them. With 3D printing of integrated circuits, it would be possible to design and build a bespoke limb with all the required functionality and wiring built into the frame during construction. This concept could be applied to any product that required electrical circuitry. Assembly lines could become a thing of the past with complete products being built by single machines.

I want you to be under no illusions, the picture I have just painted for you will not happen tomorrow. These technologies and the materials that power them are still in early forms and will require many more years of research before they become widely available.  However, they are showing progress and 3D printing is starting to deliver on some its promises.

Author: Christopher Braithwaite

The founder of TMTalks, Christopher, is based in the United Kingdom and writes for the site in his free time. Particular areas of interest include Space, energy, cyber security and block-chain technology.

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