Yes, if you are unable to find your hearing aid, you can simply print it using a 3D printer and, within minutes, you will have a new device. 3D printing has evolved much beyond even recreating something as complex as a hearing aid. In a first-of-its kind procedure, doctors in Britain have created a prosthetic face for a man because the entire left side of his face had to be removed since it was cancerous. Doctors first tried plastic surgery; however, that did not work since the patient was also undergoing chemotherapy and radiotherapy.

Fig. 1: A prosthetic face created using 3D printing (Source: http://frenchtribune.com)
Fig. 1: A prosthetic face created using 3D printing (Source: http://frenchtribune.com)

The doctors then scanned the left side of the patient’s skull and used information technology to develop a new face. 3D printing was used to create layer upon layer of nylon plastic, with the exact elements that were required in the face reconstruction procedure. Dental surgeons have been using 3D printing since the last few years to create identical models of patients’ jaw bones so that they can explore the different surgical processes available to them, prior to a surgery or tooth extraction.

The US President bets on 3D printing
On 12th February, President Barack Obama, in his State of the Union address, talked of ways to revive the US manufacturing economy. He mentioned 3D printing as the possible panacea that could multiply manufacturing opportunities. Here is an excerpt from his speech: “Our first priority is making America a magnet for new jobs and manufacturing. After shedding jobs for more than 10 years, our manufacturers have added about 500,000 jobs over the past three years…..

“Last year, we created our first manufacturing innovation institute in Youngstown, Ohio. A once-shuttered warehouse is now a state-of-the-art lab where new workers are mastering 3D printing, which has the potential to revolutionise the way we make almost everything. There’s no reason this can’t happen in other towns. So tonight, I’m announcing the launch of three more of these manufacturing hubs, where businesses will partner with the Departments of Defence and Energy to turn regions left behind by globalisation into global centres of high-tech jobs. And I ask this Congress to help create a network of 15 of these hubs and guarantee that the next revolution in manufacturing is ‘Made in America’.”

What is 3D printing all about
3D printing, also known as additive or rapid manufacturing, is a process wherein a three-dimensional solid object of just about any shape can be created from a digital model. The starting point is a digital computer aided design (CAD) file, developed with a 3D modelling program, or scanned into a 3D modelling program with a 3D scanner. The software cuts the design into several hundreds or thousands of horizontal layers to form instructions that the 3D printer understands.

The 3D printer then processes these instructions and creates each layer as per specifications. As the layers are made, they are combined together in a seamless manner and, finally, a 3D object is created. Autodesk is one of the leading players involved in creating software for 3D printing.

Fig. 2: 3D model slicing illustration (Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/3D_printing)
Fig. 2: 3D model slicing illustration (Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/3D_printing)

While conventional manufacturing involves subtractive processes, that is, removal of material by chiselling, cutting, etc, 3D printing is based on an additive process, where successive layers of material build different shapes. Objects are created by means of a sequential layering process. 3D printing technology is being used to make jewellery and footwear, in industrial design, architecture, engineering and construction, as well as in the automotive, aerospace, dental/medical, education, geographic information systems and several other industries.

Fig. 3: A 3D sandal printed out of nylon (Source: Chemistry & Industry April 25, 2011)
Fig. 3: A 3D sandal printed out of nylon (Source: Chemistry & Industry April 25, 2011)

Several companies are using 3D printing. For example, the global sports shoes manufacturer, Nike, uses 3D printing to develop multi-coloured prototypes of shoes. This has brought down both the cost and time spent in prototype development for Nike, considerably.

Let us understand the modelling part first. Additive manufacturing works on virtual blueprints from CAD or animation modelling software, and ‘slices’ them into digital cross-sections so that they serve as a guideline for the printing to be done. Depending on the printer used, a binding material is deposited on the build bed or platform until the material/binder layering is complete and the final 3D model has been ‘printed.’ It is a WYSIWYG process where the virtual and the physical models are mostly similar. The STL file format serves as a standard data interface between CAD software and the machines. It estimates the shape of a part or assembly using triangular facets. Smaller facets produce a higher quality surface. PLY is a scanner generated input file format, and VRML (or WRL) files are frequently used as input for 3D printing technologies that are able to print in full colour.

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