One of the most astonishing technological advancements seen this century is additive manufacturing – what is more commonly known as 3D printing. It is the process of fabricating three dimensional objects from a digital model. These so-called 3D printers are amazing machines that print the objects layer by layer using a specific type of material. As easily as something like Dell Inkjet Ink is used to print a 2D text or image on paper with a printer, so can ceramic powders or titanium alloys be used on a compatible 3D machine to fabricate a solid object from the said material.
3D printing initially emerged around 2003. However, printing such objects was still too expensive at that point in time – largely due to the cost of the printer itself. But after almost a decade, the cost has gone down and the applications have expanded. The technology is now utilized in various fields such as construction, footwear, architecture, aerospace, the dental and medical industries, and many more.
The type of materials used for 3D printing include alloy metal, metal powders, thermoplastics, ceramic powders, photopolymer, paper, foil, plastic film, titanium alloy, and plaster. The difference in the type of printer used is not just distinguished from the material resource, but also in the way the layers are built to fabricate the object. Methods for printing involve laying the liquid layers before curing or melting the materials before producing the layers.
What makes 3D printing unique from a normal fabrication machine is that the object is reproduced exactly with the most intricate details from the digital model. Aside from creating detailed figurines or objects with moving parts, the most useful applications are those that are used for medical purposes. 3D printers have been used to produce precise prosthetic limbs or exact jaw replicas to assist those who need to replace specific parts of their body.
At the moment, 3D printers are still unable to print complex moving objects. But in the near future, scientists are predicting the use of more complex materials such as organic materials or human cells that can replicate organs needed for transplant. Instead of just making iPhone cases, maybe the mobile phone itself can be printed. The possibilities are staggering, but we all know that the human imagination combined with ingenuity has never ceased to amaze us.