Printing the future

3D printing may be the way mass manufacture is going, but it is also bringing out the artisan in all of us. Tim Dean looks at some of the many ways we can use this new technology. 

3D printed body parts provide medical students with models that are highly detailed, accurate in terms of colour and odour free.
Monash Centre for Human Anatomy Education

One moment it’s an image on a screen, the next it’s an object in your hands – today’s 3D printers make Star Trek gadgets look tame.

Futuristic as they are, they are also taking us back to a time when individuals were able to craft their own designs. While conventional manufacturing excels at churning out mountains of identical objects, 3D printing gives today’s artisans free reign.

Here are some examples. But this is just the beginning – 3D printing is limited only by our imaginations.

Bespoke bike

Every body is different. So wouldn’t it be great if your bike were tailored to yours? Matthew Andrew, owner and designer at Flying Machine in Perth, can oblige. He teamed up with the CSIRO’s Lab 22 to produce a prototype bike, above, with 3D-printed titanium parts that can be tailored to the customer’s size.

“The customer is measured up. It’s similar to buying a tailored suit. You just can’t do that with traditional manufacturing,” says Andrew.

He is already taking orders. Prices will be around $3,000 for the frame, making the bikes a premium option but by no means the most expensive on the market.

Anatomy in print

Most people don’t appreciate being poked, prodded and dissected, so anatomy classes typically use cadavers. But they’re not easy to come by. They require expensive treatment to keep them preserved and many places restrict their use. Enter 3D printed body parts.

Paul McMenamin, director of the Centre for Human Anatomy Education at Monash University, and colleagues have scanned some of the best preserved specimens in their collection and reproduced them using a 3D printer. The results are highly detailed, accurate in terms of colour, odour free and far less expensive than plastic-impregnated “plastinated” specimens, such as those seen in the Body Worlds exhibition.

Even experienced surgeons are using these 3D-printed models, like the one pictured above, to perfect delicate operations before attempting them in the operating theatre.

Home is where you print it

3D printing can make big objects too. In early 2014 WinSun Decoration Design Engineering Co. in China built several houses outside Shanghai using an enormous 3D printer, as seen above. This changed the building method – these houses did not rise from the ground in the conventional manner. Rather, the basic structural elements were printed using an automated gantry arm to extrude a mixture of high grade concrete and glass fibre. The parts were then assembled. The company’s aim is to build up to 10 houses a day at a cost of around $5,000 each.

A similar demonstration is slowly taking shape in Amsterdam at the 3D Print Canal House, led by DUS architects. Instead of concrete, DUS is using a custom granular plastic made from 80% vegetable oil that melts at 170°C. An oversized 3D printer called KamerMaker (or “room builder”) melts the plastic and extrudes it layer by layer to form the structural elements, which can also have cosmetic elements built in.

The lessons learnt from the project will inform 3D-printed house designs around the world.

Airbus Operations GmbH

Printing in the air

Objects built to fly need to be lightweight, strong and constructed to an exacting level of precision. These properties can readily be delivered by 3D printing, which is one reason the aerospace industry has been among the first to embrace the technology.

Airbus recently teamed up with German company Concept Laser to develop 3D-printed titanium parts, above, for its next generation A350 XWB passenger jet. One part is a complex fuel pipe that normally requires 10 individual components to be welded together. The 3D-printed version merged all 10 parts into one, no welding required. The end result is quicker to build, weighs less and costs only a fraction of the conventionally made part.

Another part developed by Concept Laser is a bracket typically manufactured out of aluminium and weighing 332 grams. The 3D-printed titanium version weighs only 189 grams and is as strong as the original.

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