3D printing is a tremendously exciting technology that has changed many industries for the better, but arguably none of them have benefited as much as modern manufacturing. As 3D printed products continue to grow in popularity, it’s easy to assume that this technology has only recently been invented. However, it has actually been used for three decades.
The idea of producing 3D objects dates back to the 1970s, but the first 3D printing patent was given to Hideo Kodama in 1981. Kodama invented a device which could harden photoreactive polymers using UV light. Just three years later, Alain Le Mehaute and a team of French inventors applied for another patent- this time using a stereolithography method, which is still used today. Interestingly, the patent application was abandoned by General Electric. Unfortunately for General Electric, the company didn’t see any significant business applications or prospects in the idea.
While this was sad news for Le Mehaute, it benefited Chuck Hull- the man now widely known as the father of 3D printing. Just a few weeks later, Hull filed his patent for his own stereolithography machine, and today it remains one of the most common techniques for 3D printing.
How Does Metal 3D Printing Work?
Metal fabrication involves a massive amount of energy, along with a substantial amount of waste. In fact, up to 80% of the metal used in the manufacturing of some products is cut away and wasted. Not only does this mean much more energy is used than necessary, but the finished product also ends up much heavier than it needs to be.
In contrast, 3D printing allows manufacturers to use exactly the right amount of material necessary, bringing the wastage right down to nothing. The technology is fascinating, and the applications are enormous.
Traditional 3D printers work by melting down plastic and then depositing it where it needs to go. Obviously, the melting point of metal is much too high for this to work. Instead, 3D printing metal involves slightly more creative solutions.
One of the most popular solutions is called binder jetting. For this method, the build chamber is filled with a gas to prevent the metal from oxidation. Next, a layer of metal powder is spread, before a polymer compound is sprayed where necessarily, creating one layer. This is repeated until the metal object is completed.
3D Printing on TV
References to 3D printing are becoming more and more common in popular culture. Not surprisingly, Big Bang Theory was one of the first references to this technology, when Howard and Ray used 3D printing to print action figures of themselves on an episode back in 2013.
CSI has also referenced 3D printing with an episode from 2013 when a man was found dead from a 3D printed gun- making it untraceable. And of course, Greys Anatomy has long been focused on 3D printing and its applications in the medical field with Meredith and Christina attempting to 3D print a heart and portal vein.
The Future of 3D Printing
In 2017, 3D metal printers launched at under $100,000 for the first time. While the price has lowered, speed has massively increased, with some 3D printers now capable of producing materials 100 times faster than older 3D printers.
There’s no doubt that the future is bright for this technology. Printer sales are currently growing at 48%, while NASA plans to use 3D printing for more than 80% of its rocket engines in the future. Many different types of metals are being printed right now, from bronze to silver, platinum to copper, and of course steel, tungsten, nitinol, and titanium. The dental industry is already beginning to 3D print parts like bridges and copings.
The number of industries that 3D printing will impact is almost endless, and there’s no question that the sky is the limit as far as this technology is concerned.