The View From Here
by Ric Jackson
March 25th, 2019

3D Printing Evolves, but Still Has Limits

The first 3D printer was constructed in the early 1980s to help speed up prototyping for manufacturers. It came at a price tag of more than $300,000. Today, the technology has evolved to a point that the average person can feasibly own one for personal use and applications have expanded beyond manufacturing into the actual creation of cars, buildings and even pharmaceuticals.

But what does the next frontier of 3D printing technology look like?

The last time I saw large-scale 3D printing was at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in 2017, when they were printing a car for the auto show. (Yes, printing a car!) The entire body was printed full-scale and with the addition of a chassis and drive-train, it was actually drivable. At the same time, I witnessed building panels printed with windows in place. I was amazed by what I saw and encouraged by how it could be applied to our industry, not only now, but well into the future.

As a mainstream method, 3D printing allows us to create low-volume, complex parts that might take weeks to fabricate using traditional machining techniques. But grainy surfaces and limitations on how much vertical height can be achieved in thin profiles have inspired some researchers to take the technology to the next level.

The grainy surfaces found in 3D printed objects are the result of the “additive manufacturing” process in which they are made. Essentially this means that the material being used is added, layer upon layer, to achieve the end result. The method can also be a slow process, which must be accounted for in timelines.

To solve both problems with speed and quality, researchers at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, the University of California Berkeley and the University of Michigan are making progress with a new process—volumetric photopolymerization—that uses light sources rather than layering, and they are closer to finding ways for improving speed and surface smoothness. (read more here)

We know the next generation of 3D printers is coming, but when?

The View from Here is that we are a long way from commercialization of this new technique for practical use in building and construction. We’ll likely first see it inching its way into custom components and prototyping, much like the first-generation of 3D printers did decades ago. But the good news is: There has been recognition of the technology’s limitations and researchers are taking steps toward solving those challenges.

What’s your view? Email me directly at eric.jackson@quanex.com.

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