Uses of 3D Printing and Plastics in Manufacturing—Waddup?

Professor Plastics

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3D printing with plastic word cloud

3D printing is getting quite a bit of attention these days from the media, big business, entrepreneurs, doctors, artists—and even chefs. Although still small, the market for 3D printing products and services is growing quickly, expected to reach $6 billion worldwide by 2017.

And the “wow” factor is very high. Have you seen the video of Buttercup the duck fitted with a 3D printed plastic leg? Very cute—you can learn all about him (and a little about 3D printing) on his very own Facebook page.

But just what is 3D printing, and what does this newfangled machinery have to do with the average American? I mean … will we all someday be buying plastics online and making our own furniture, clothing and tableware in our living rooms?

Possibly. But unlikely for now.

What is 3D Printing? A quick background for those unfamiliar with this sort-of-newish technology …

A 3D printer functions sort of like an ink jet printer—except instead of using ink to print a flat image on paper, it typically uses plastics or a few other materials (including chocolate!) to build an object, layer upon layer in three dimensions. Computer aided design (CAD) software or a 3D scan enables the printer to precisely manipulate the plastics.

3D printing is an example of “additive manufacturing,” in which an object is built up in layers. Additive manufacturing produces little waste—which can help control costs and contribute to sustainability.

Depending on the type of plastic or material used, a 3D printer can make furniture, medical and dental implants, automotive parts, footwear, jewelry, construction materials, musical instruments—the possibilities are almost endless. Plus, the printers can be mobile—they can be deployed on site to build components of a house or to rapidly create a lifesaving device on the battlefield.

Who Uses 3D Printing (and 3D Printers)?

So who actually is using 3D printers today? Most of this technology today is employed by businesses and the government, in particular the defense department. (We’ll take a look at home printers in a follow-up article on 3D printing and plastics.)

And 3D printing has picked up a good bit of momentum. In fact, in 2012 President Obama created The National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Institute to “accelerate additive manufacturing and 3D printing technologies and increase our nation’s global manufacturing competitiveness.” Nicknamed “America Makes,” it’s a public-private partnership headed by the U.S. military that includes companies such as Boeing, Lockheed Martin, GE, and 3M, as well as companies that make 3D printers, such as Stratasys and 3D Systems Corporation.

America Makes is located in Youngstown, Ohio, the heart of America’s rust belt, and has a rather ambitious agenda: “to help the domestic manufacturing sector resume its prominence in the global economy.” Wow. Apparently, the government and some big business see 3D printing as, well, big business.

What are the Benefits of 3D Printing?

All this promising talk of transforming America’s manufacturing base is based primarily on the ability of 3D printing/additive manufacturing to do two things: speed up and cut costs of manufacturing just about anything, from jet engines to eyeglasses. 3D printing offers flexibility, less waste and ease of prototyping—something any manufacturer would desire.

But it’s the really cool applications, many of them made possible by plastics, that are getting the most attention today. These are way beyond cute little duck feet. Here are some innovative examples that use various types of plastics…

3D Printing Innovations in Healthcare

The healthcare industry has embraced 3D printing technology to make personalized hip implants, dental crowns, hearing aids, prosthetic limbs, and more.

For example, doctors last year used the plastic PEKK (polyetherketoneketone) to replace 75 percent of man’s skull. Specialists initially analyzed/measured the patient’s head and then printed the new piece of plastic skull, including little surface details to make it easier to attach and to encourage cell growth.

The manufacturer says that this technology could be used on car accident victims, patients with skull bone cancer and soldiers. The company has applied for FDA approval to make bone parts using plastics and 3D printing to replace injured bones throughout the human body.

3D Printing at the Movies

I’m a big James Bond fan. And 3D printing and plastics were front and center in the James Bond film “Skyfall.” Instead of actually blowing up a priceless Aston Martin as called for in the script, filmmakers commissioned three models of the classic at one-third scale using PMMA or poly(methyl methacrylate).

And these were not simple, single-piece cheapo models. Because the model cars had to look realistic, with working doors and such, eighteen plastic car parts were “printed” and assembled in pretty much the same way they were in years past. Add some color, chrome effects and realistic looking bullet holes, et voila! The three model Aston Martins that were virtually impossible to distinguish from the original—even in close-ups.

The 3D printing company that made the models predicts that more filmmakers will turn to 3D printing instead of 3D graphics for more realistic scenes.

(Pity they had to blow up one of the models during filmmaking. One of the remaining models was auctioned off for $100,000.)

3D Printing in the Military

As I mentioned, our fighting forces are keenly interested in 3-D printing, for many reasons:

  • The military is planning to 3D scan soldiers before deployment so precise prosthetics could be created, if needed—very likely using 3D printers and plastics such as PEKK.
  • The Army’s Rapid Equipping Force has begun use 3D printers in combat zones to quickly create a needed spare part or an on-the-spot fix for life-threatening situations. One recent example: a simple plastic guard to prevent the inadvertent illumination of a flashlight that could expose a soldier’s location.
  • 3D printers also are being used in forward positions to test and create plastic prototypes for needed equipment, which dramatically speeds up manufacture and delivery. As the Force’s commander describes it: “Rather than bringing the soldier home to the scientist, we have uprooted the scientist and the engineer and brought them to the soldier.”
  • Weaponry is expensive. 3D printing of weapon systems that must continually evolve—such as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs or “drones”)—can dramatically drive down costs and production time, plus allow for ongoing design changes without retooling. One UAV maker reduced its production time of plastic components by more than 40 percent and its cost by nearly 60 percent by using 3D printing.

The Future of 3D Printing: What’s Next?

Where’s all this headed? Well, I’m not a futurist, but if only some of the predictions by big business and government come true, 3D printing has the potential to dramatically bolster our nation’s manufacturing base and contribute significantly to sustainability (more on that topic in a future article.)

Plus help the Buttercups of this world.