“3D printing is now moving towards becoming mainstream,” notes Vishesh Shishodia, co-founder, www.3dprintronics.com. Earlier, 3D printing was restricted to big industries or research labs that used industrial 3D printers for rapid prototyping. With the proliferation of desktop fused deposition modelling (FDM) based 3D printers, this technology has now come to the masses. He says, “The massive do-it-yourself (DIY) movement in the USA and Europe in the field of open source 3D printers has a huge contribution in making this technology affordable and available to common people. Project RepRap is one such movement.” He adds, “Most of the present desktop 3D printers are based on ideas taken from such open source printers.”

Latest developments in this field can be classified into two domains: desktop 3D printers and industrial 3D printers. Let us take a look at both simultaneously.

Exciting progress in desktop 3D printers
Last year was a very exciting one for 3D printing, believes Prasad Rodagi, founder-director, Altem Technologies, due to the emergence of low-cost 3D printers in Indian market, including some of those made indigenously. He says, “Though these might not have massive implications on an industrial level, these printers made 3D printing more accessible to a lot of people and generated significant interest in the common man due to the cost factor. These work great for DIY projects and allow for more design prototyping.” He adds, “While you might be able to 3D-print quirky little coffee mugs and mouse pads on hobby printers, it creates awareness about what these printers can do. It opens up one’s imagination to other possibilities, which is one of the wonderful things about low-cost printers.”

International Space Station Expedition 42 commander Barry “Butch” Wilmore shows off a ratchet wrench made with a 3D printer on the station. It took about four hours for the printer to make the wrench, thereby allowing astronauts to reliably print what was required and not depend on carrying supplies from the Earth (Image courtesy: www.nasa.gov)
International Space Station Expedition 42 commander Barry “Butch” Wilmore shows off a ratchet wrench made with a 3D printer on the station. It took about four hours for the printer to make the wrench, thereby allowing astronauts to reliably print what was required and not depend on carrying supplies from the Earth (Image courtesy: www.nasa.gov)
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Another noteworthy development has happened in adopting entry-level 3D printers offering stereo-lithography (SLA) based technology to make very-high-definition and complex industry applications, like electronics, manufacturing, automobile, dental and medical devices, informs Chandan Mishra, co-founder-director, 3Digiprints. SLA is a highly-accurate, additive manufacturing process used to create parts from 3D CAD data in a matter of hours. In this process, CAD data is sliced into very thin cross-section or layers, and this data is then transferred to an SLA additive manufacturing 3D printer, where it creates the model one layer at a time. Models created with this technology are typically used as concept models. Desktop SLA based printers have begun to make a mark, with Formlabs (a designer and manufacturer of desktop 3D printers) leading the pack.

A lot of companies have also started manufacturing their own desktop 3D printers. Talking about the launch of Stratasys’ new printer in July, 2014, Rodagi says, “The Connex3 colour multi-material 3D printer series features a unique triple-jetting technology that combines droplets of three base materials to produce parts with virtually unlimited combinations of rigid, flexible and transparent colour materials, as well as colour digital materials, all in a single print run.”

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Progress in industrial 3D printing technology
Significant development has happened in the last couple of years in the industrial 3D printing sector. Industrial 3D printers that use materials like titanium and other highly-refined materials can print new and replacement parts for aerospace, automobile and medical device industries. Mishra says, “A more refined workflow system is helping many companies to use 3D-printing processes to offer distributed-parts delivery systems, enabling them to cut cost in terms of inventory and product upgradation.” On personal printers front, he adds, “Many companies have now started offering products on reliable FDM platforms with low-cost printers (starting US$499) and making these affordable for professional as well as home use.”

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Coming years will see 3D-printing materials get more suitable and compatible with injection-moulded parts, feels Mishra. Consequently, the cost of these 3D-printed parts would fall down. He says, “It will also see a huge technological upgradation in terms of productivity and printed sizes to allow companies to use 3D-printed objects in their final production process.”

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Technology gets better by the day. Big names, like Autodesk and HP, have decided to enter the industrial 3D-printing market. Canon is expected to follow shortly. “Though these are high-end and not affordable for hobbyists or small/medium scale companies, there are a lot of start-ups focussed on delivering qualitative machines at affordable prices,” says Surendranath Reddy, founder and CEO, Redd Robotics and 3D-ing. He adds, “Particularly in India, with the Make In India movement catching up, we are expecting exports of 3D printers to happen in a big way.”

Interesting activities triggered by 3D printing
In medical field. 3D-printing technology is a very rapidly developing field. Every day we hear of new things that are being done with the help of 3D printing. Shishodia says, “Printing computerised tomography (CT) scans of patients provide doctors with exact moulds required for producing transplant parts. A patient was recently transplanted with a 3D-printed titanium facial implant. There are research labs working on printing complete organs using 3D printers by using amino acids and other life-forming chemicals, such as ink.” He adds, “A home project started by a father by printing a prosthetic hand for his son has taken the shape of a massive revolution of 3D-printed prosthetics.”

In space. Talking about the world of space exploration, imagine a day when an astronaut is on Mars and something breaks. What does he or she do when in urgent need of a replacement? In space, where there is no comfort of overnight shipping, to be able to make parts on demand will forever change that situation for astronauts. With 3D printers, an astronaut has the ability to make whatever is needed, right there on the spot.

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For instance, recently NASA printed tools on International Space Station (ISS), shares Shishodia. He says, “You transmit something from somewhere and it appears somewhere else within a few minutes.” The 3D printer printed a tool with a design file transmitted from the ground to the printer at ISS. The tool was a ratchet wrench.

In consumer sector. 3D printing is helping convert ideas to physical products faster than expected. The evolving eco-system is allowing product designers and marketers to market their products faster and enabling the product delivery process, informs Mishra. He says, “Companies, like Amazon, Microsoft and FedEx, are helping create a business for personalised items, such as phone covers, figurines, 3D-printed jewellery and many such products.”

3D printers are fostering customisation as well, informs Vivekanandhavarma Datla, head-Manufacturing Engineering Solutions, Cyient Ltd. He says, “Personalised, custom-printed iPhone cases are just the beginning of an era of hyper-customisation, potentially achievable through 3D printing.”

In robotics and DIY community. Here too, 3D printing has been a boon. It is enabling printing of various small parts designed by makers for their projects. Such ease of fabrication would not be possible without 3D printing.

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3D printing offers great amount of freedom to engineers
“From desktop to desk in a few minutes,” summarises Shishodia the process of 3D printing. With 3D printing, an engineer can have a prototype of his design ready within a few minutes to a few hours by printing it on his desk.

3D printing aids in converting an idea into a physical product in the quickest possible time. Speed to market is the biggest gain for engineers using this technology, believes Datla. He notes, “There is a paradigm shift from ‘design for manufacture’ to ‘manufacture anything that can be designed.’”

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With 3D printing becoming faster and cheaper, engineers will have the luxury of modelling and prototyping more of their designs before production, feels Sidhant Pai, CEO Protoprint Solutions Pvt Ltd. He says, “The ability to physically test their models will likely lead to better and more usable products. Additionally, high-quality 3D printing will enable customised add-ons to user products, freeing product designers to factor in personalisation in their designs.”

While there are desktop 3D printers available from popular companies, engineers also go for DIY kits that prove to be slightly cheaper and also give them an insight into the nuances of 3D printers during the course of the build, notes Shishodia. He says, “Open source 3D printers, like Prusa i3 and OrdBot Hadron, are quite popular among the DIY 3D-printer community.”

Talking specifically about how specifications of today’s printers could help engineers, Reddy says, “In FDM, techniques like auto-bed levelling help by reducing users’ interventions. Algorithms that make the 3D printer’s tool head move slowly at curves, intricate designs or small objects, increases the cool-down time and quality.” He adds, “Different approaches of a machine’s mechanical designs, such as coreXY mechanism, helical or delta-styled 3D printers, are opening up more possibilities for machine features.”

Will 2015 be equally exciting for 3D printing
3D printing is a broad umbrella term and there have been a lot of separate developments throughout the field. Broadly speaking, Pai predicts that 2015 will see an explosion of different materials and techniques being used in conventional 3D printing—composites, metals and new polymers. He says, “I also see low-cost SLA technology playing a larger role as prices drop, making it more affordable.” He adds, “The immediate benefit of these developments will be to product designers and developers, having the ability to prototype and test their models with a number of different materials.”

Emergence of more unusual applications of 3D printing could be expected in coming years. For instance, food industry is quickly endorsing 3D printing. Datla says, “Two kitchen-ready 3D food printers have already been presented at a trade show. These machines can print sugar, chocolate and candy in any imaginable design.”

The next phase would also be to make metal 3D printers more cost-effective. Rodagi says, “3D printing saw a boom when people had access to low-cost thermoplastic 3D printers. Now, imagine the implications of a low-cost metal 3D printer.”

Multiple-material printing would be another upcoming area. Datla says, “It will become possible to use a wider range of materials for 3D printing.” Multi-material 3D printers for various requirements of colour, elasticity and strength, and printers for electronics and optics are beginning to appear. He adds, “Combining new materials, nano-scale dimensions and printed electronics, new products with previously unimaginable properties will emerge.”

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Aakash, founder and CEO, Aha3D Innovations Pvt Ltd, believes that fused filament fabrication (FFF) is firmly established as the most popular 3D-printing technology. He says, “It will continue to grow, largely because of its popularity and push from material innovations.”

“Currently, there is a huge gap between FFF and high-end SLS printers in print quality as well as price standard, which has brought new innovative technologies like stick deposition moulding (SDM) with anti-slip mechanism to bridge this gap,” informs Vinay Sharma, director-technical, ni logic Pvt Ltd (ni2designs). SDM gives a more accurate dose control and better precision. He adds, “A combination of such innovative improvisations in low-cost printers with advanced printing software, like Netfabb, can ensure professional-grade prints in the mid segment.”

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2015 could also see more commercialisation of 4D printing. This technology will entail numerous applications. Datla shares, “Examples include appliances that can adapt to heat and improve functionality or comfort, childcare products that can react to humidity or temperature, and clothing and footwear that will perform better by sensing the environment.” He adds, “4D printing makes it possible for objects in hard-to-reach places, such as underground water pipes, to expand or shrink depending on water flow, thus avoiding the need to dig to exchange pipes.”

With advancements in 3D bio-printing, the ability to synthesise and customise living tissue will likely revolutionise the field of medicine and prosthetics. However, Pai says, “These advancements could also give rise to a number of moral issues, which will need to be resolved as they arise. Either way, the next few years promise to be interesting.”

3D hubs and print shops can be expected to open everywhere, from primary schools to homes to industrial houses. “3D printers will become extremely versatile machines to be used in all walks of life. Further, networked 3D printers may enable users to detect and better utilise spare capacity,” says Datla.

3D printers are the next big thing
The impact of 3D printing on technology and everyday life will be unprecedented. “The remarkable possibility of widespread domestic use of this technology has tremendous potential to change the way goods are obtained, designed and innovated,” says Datla.

Technically, a patent expired in January 2013, which unlocked a high-resolution 3D-printing technique using light/laser, informs Reddy. (A patent is usually valid for 20 years and, after expiry, it becomes open source and free for access to anyone.) Many patents in 3D printing have already expired, or will soon expire, and this will enable even faster development and proliferation of 3D printers.

3D printers are the next big thing in the field of technology, feels Shishodia. He says, “The day is not far when we will all have a 3D printer on our desktops, as we have normal printers.” Reddy too feels that a 3D printer would be in every home, like a computer, within the next ten years.

Aakash shares, “General acceptance of 3D printing, along with its limitations, has found a place in the minds of consumers.” It can be comparable to the acceptance and popularity of dot-matrix printers. He adds, “Digital manufacturing will only get bigger in the future.”

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