The future of 3D printing will see faster production speeds, lower machine costs, bigger build platforms and a spiralling quantity of bespoke products, writes Prof Debra Laefer. How can Ireland's manufacturing industry maximise these new technologies?
Civil

 

Author: Debra F. Laefer, associate professor at UCD School of Civil, Structural & Environmental Engineering and director of U3D at UCD

As the director and co-founder of U3D, Ireland’s first full-service, commercial-level 3D printing hub, I spend a lot of time thinking about the future of three-dimensional (3D) printing. Mostly, I do this for the sheer joy of it, but also for strategic decision-making for equipment and material purchasing.

This is actually hard work, as there are few areas or technologies that are growing as fast or in such a diversified manner as 3D printing. This diversification is happening in all aspects of the industry, from input design to output capabilities.

When thinking about the future of 3D printing, some of the advances are obvious. These include faster production speeds, lower machine costs, bigger build platforms and a spiralling quantity of bespoke products, such as those offered by the Dublin-based company Love And Robots. Nearly every month, there are news stories triumphing advances in each of these areas.

3D printing Ireland

Fig. 1: Sample of file in preparation for fused deposition modeling printing at U3D

This has been especially true with the cost of the machines that print plastic filament (fuse deposition machines [Fig. 1]) and the filaments themselves, including low-cost local providers such as Ireland’s own 3D Ink. For several months last year, the low-end of the equipment part of the 3D printing ecosystem seemed to be in a nearly endless spiral to the bottom, in part fuelled by a spate of Kickstarter campaigns and a strong emergence of new players from both Asia and Eastern Europe.

Many industry gurus are predicting that over the next five years, much the same will occur at the top end of the market [mostly occupied by the printers], as the last of the original patents on selective laser sintering and related techniques are set to expire (Fig. 2). Only time will tell, but the market definitely seems to be clamouring for a low-cost metal printer – one with a price tag containing less than six figures (Fig. 3).

Scale and 3D printing


Scale is another hot topic in 3D printing. Currently, there are machines in all of the major 3D printing technologies that will print in the cubic metre range, and this metric is likely to increase as adoption of 3D printing in the automotive industry continues to expand.

3D printing Ireland

Fig. 2: Geodesic form fromFormlabs resin printer with a 30 micron accuracy at U3D

Instead of increasing the build envelope, some companies are attempting to alter the technology so that the printing is done at an angle. This enables the printed item to grow outside the confines of the printing axes in an extrusion-type arrangment; currently, there is at least one commercial printer that advertises this. However, irrespective of the mechanism, the ability to print larger pieces will enable 3D printing to gain significantly more entry into areas such as furniture, home décor, and large-scale appliances – three areas where 3D printing has had almost no in roads to date.

The other noteworthy advancement in scale is what is happening at the other end of the spectrum, namely the less well-reported efforts in nano-scale printing. I know of at least one instance where an electro-spinner was retrofitted in an academic setting to be a very simple 3D nano printer. Such efforts are now happening at a commercial level here in Ireland with Profector Life Sciences trying to pioneer a new machine for market.

The successful commercial entry of such technology will be a huge leap forward in what is arguably one of most interesting sides of 3D printing’s future. In particular, nanoprinting is likely to lead to even faster advancements in 3D printed sensors. With the recent explosion of filaments that are conductive, magnetic or possessing other functional properties, the dream of printing a range of functional sensors cannot be far away.

3D printing Ireland

Fig. 3: Metal printing in process on the MLAB at U3D

Another area where functionally-endowed materials are gaining traction is in the response to the surrounding environment. So a definite future trend in 3D printing will be ‘4D printing’. With the advent of new materials, there will be the opportunity to design items with highly controlled responses to such factors as temperature, ultra-violet light, pressure, moisture and even time.

When one thinks how this could intersect with patient-specific surgical aids, the future seems nearly boundless. So, while the medical field has been one of the earliest adopters of 3D printing, the market is far from saturated.

Printed organs and ‘bio-printers’


3D printing Ireland

Fig. 4: A sample of scan to print opportunities shown for a portion of Dawson St, Dublin, produced on the U3D Objet Alaris 30 (25 micron accuracy)

Arguably, the most radical area for advancement will be in 3D printed organs. The recent approval by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in the United States (US) for the use of 3D printed skin for human patients (a technique developed by the US military to address combat injuries) heralds a willingness on the part of the most powerful medical regulatory agency to fully embrace 3D printing’s potential. This should be very encouraging for Ireland, where the pharmalogical industry is already a healthy part of the economy.

Bio-printers are a related area that has hardly been explored or exploited. Today, their market availability is highly limited with only a couple of commercial vendors and a six-figure price tag. But those with a more limited budget should not fret, as demonstrated at the most recent London 3D print show, where a doctoral candidate at the University of Edinburgh displayed a do-it-yourself version of a bio-printer with a price tag in the hundreds of euro, instead of the hundreds of thousands. While one is unlikely to be printing surgical implants on it, the market will have to respond.

Regulatory environment – 3D printing Ireland


3D printing Ireland

Fig. 5: Stratasys Eden 260V, the latest of U3D’s equipment acquisitions

As my last observation in this article, I will note that in all of this excitement, the regulatory environment has failed to keep pace. This has left many 3D printing enthusiasts without an adequate framework to effectively push for further adoption. This is especially true, as the technology slowly transforms itself from one of simply prototyping to one of actual product production.

In the context of zero-defect production and safety considerations, the absence of a range of material performance standards and testing guidelines has pushed the burden of quality control onto local 3D printing hubs, few of which are equipped to do rigorous material testing, especially in the absence of regulatory standards and the garage-style environment where many of the most innovative materials are emerging. This is something that will have to change – and change soon.

ASTM International, formerly known as the American Society for Testing and Materials, and International Organization for Standardization (ISO) standards for 3D metal printing for dentistry give a good example of what should be undertaken. This will lead to product certification (and possibly even machine certification) upon which consumers can rely, which will only be a benefit for all involved.

In this article, I have highlighted only a handful of the changes that I see coming in 3D printing in the next five years, as the topics of textiles, recycling, industrial integration, point-of-consumption production, ‘scan to print’ (Fig. 4) and 3D-printed food and pharmaceuticals have not even been mentioned. Clearly, we all have much to which to look forward.

At U3D, our immediate future involves last week’s arrival of our newest piece of equipment, an Eden 260V (Fig. 5), which will give the Irish market 12 new materials including a wide range of rubber-like materials to try. I invite you to come by to U3D for a visit.

Debra F. Laefer is an associate professor at UCD School of Civil, Structural & Environmental Engineering and the director of U3D at UCD.

http://www.engineersjournal.ie/wp-content/uploads/2015/02/3d-1024x662.jpghttp://www.engineersjournal.ie/wp-content/uploads/2015/02/3d-300x300.jpgDavid O'RiordanCivil3D Printing,Dublin,manufacturing,UCD
  Author: Debra F. Laefer, associate professor at UCD School of Civil, Structural & Environmental Engineering and director of U3D at UCD As the director and co-founder of U3D, Ireland’s first full-service, commercial-level 3D printing hub, I spend a lot of time thinking about the future of three-dimensional (3D) printing. Mostly,...