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February 13, 2013

3D Printing Revolutionizing Manufacturing on Large and Small Scales

By Tracey E. Schelmetic, TMCnet Contributor

Most people are unaware that we are on the cusp of a technology with a potential so revolutionary, it may change the world forever. Called 3D printing (or sometimes additive manufacturing), it’s the process of making a three-dimensional solid object of virtually any shape from a digital model. It’s achieved by laying down successive layers of material to make different shapes, unlike traditional manufacturing processes which require machines to take a portion of raw material and subtract to create a shape (also called “subtractive processes”).

While 3D printing isn’t a brand new technology – it’s increasingly used in manufacturing as costs of certain types of 3D printers have come down – new materials and the ability to work on the nanometer scale will turn manufacturing on its ear. This is because newer processes at the nano scale can actually control material as it is printed, right down to the molecules and atoms, according to a recent article in Forbes. This brings us closer to a future where, with a 3D printer connected to a computer, you may actually be able to “print” solid objects.

The process will change the way we manufacture, writes the Economist.

“The printing of parts and products has the potential to transform manufacturing because it lowers the costs and risks. No longer does a producer have to make thousands, or hundreds of thousands, of items to recover his fixed costs. In a world where economies of scale do not matter anymore, mass-manufacturing identical items may not be necessary or appropriate, especially as 3D printing allows for a great deal of customization.”

3D printing will also revolutionize computing, since objects of insanely small size can be created, thanks to nanotechnology. German nanotechnology company Nanoscribe uses a process it calls “direct laser writing,” which is described as a “non-linear two photon absorption process.” The company recently released a video that demonstrates its printing process using a Photonic Professional GT 3D printer. In the video, the company builds a spaceship that is narrower than the diameter of a human hair: 125µm (micrometers) by 81µm by 26.8µm. The whole event takes less than a minute.

The process, called “nanolithography,” is expected to launch a nearly infinite number of applications when it comes to computing (semiconductors in particular), mobile technology, medical technology and many other areas.

Not everyone is experimenting with 3D printing at the nano level. Some researchers are going big: very big. A Dutch architect recently revealed plans to begin 3D printing entire buildings. The architect, Janjaap Ruijssenaars, plans to partner with a company that has developed a large-scale 3D printer that uses sand and a special binding agent to create a "marble like material" stronger than cement, reported the BBC.

While of course no one can predict the future of the technology, there’s a good chance that much of our future – large or small -- may be printed.

Edited by Brooke Neuman
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