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3D Printing - Its applications and how it can take us into the future


Printing houses, human organs, a myriad range of tools and even food items have become possible, thanks to an exciting technology that promises to fast forward our journey into the future. Read more about the applications of 3D printing and what it has in store, especially for India.

3D printing has been around for almost three decades now, but it is only in the current decade that this technology has been able to make big headlines. The possibilities for 3D printing are almost limitless. When used properly it can lead to several far-reaching changes in fields as diverse as healthcare, construction, and manufacturing.

The term 3D printing can be confusing for some considering our experience with everyday printing. In normal day to day printing, ink is used to create two-dimensional objects, generally on sheets of paper (or on any flat surface). What happens in 3D printing is that instead of ink, thermoplastics are used. These are deposited layer by layer to create solid objects. The movement of the nozzle is guided by computer images created using Computer-Aided Design (CAD). These CAD images are in a way the blueprint for the entire operation.

In fact, what is amazing about 3D printing is that apart from thermoplastics several kinds of materials can be used in the cartridges. These materials can be either in liquid or powdered form. After these are released from the nozzle, hardening is done using an adhesive or under UV radiation. This general process is used with some variations to create various products, from life-saving organs to 3D printed chocolate! In a way, the entire theory of manufacturing has changed in the last decade or so. Earlier manufacturing was 'subtractive' in the sense that parts were generally cut out from, say, sheets of metal and then welding and other processes were used to attach these. This leads to a considerable amount of waste. In contrast to this, 3D printing is a form of 'additive manufacturing', in which layers are added on top of each other to create finished products. As a result, the waste produced is generally lesser.

Manufacturing

3D printing, when used sensibly, can solve several problems of the future. The versatile nature of the process and the variety of materials that can be used in it means that a wide range of sectors can be influenced through it. One obvious application is in manufacturing. As already seen, traditional manufacturing creates a lot of wastes due to the subtractive nature of the process. 3D printing can help in minimizing that and in the process cut down on costs and also save scarce resources. Also, for a manufacturing plant relying entirely on 3D printing, large and complicated production lines are unnecessary. As a result, even plants with a smaller floor area can engage in reasonably large scale manufacturing.

The obvious downside is the initial costs involved. Although in the longer run, 3D printing is cheaper, the initial cost of installing industrial level printers can burn a hole into the pocket of a small or even a medium enterprise. This is especially true in India where the market is generally price-sensitive and the willingness to adopt new technology is quite less among manufacturers. Fortunately, firms like 3D Hubs are working to make the technology accessible. What it does is that users can upload CAD files of their choice, and then they can specify the materials and the finishing, etc. Then, they are given the contact of a local 3D printer owner who does the manufacturing for them. Activities such as these and governmental push can greatly help in the adoption of the new technology.

Printing human organs

The second big way in which 3D printing can impact the future is in the field of healthcare. This usually takes the form of bio-printing or the printing of tissue using 3D printing technology. Bio-printing is one of those things which are truly futuristic. Living cells are embedded in a matrix (generally containing collagen or nanocellulose) to create bio-ink. The ink is then added layer upon layer to create tissues compatible with the patient. In this case, the CAD files are created using images from CT scans and MRI scans.

We have to remember however that 3D printing of actual living tissue is several times more complex than the printing of a cup or a bicycle. The main challenge, especially when printing complex organs is to ensure the survival of the cells. Although there are talks about 3D printing of organs like the human heart, it will probably take a couple of decades for the technology to materialize and become widely available. Nevertheless, institutions like the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine have been making significant progress in this regard, creating miniature models of the heart. This is a significant development as the demand for organs for transplantation far exceeds the number of donor organs available.

Far greater has been the progress in bioprinting of organs like the ear. An Indian company Novabeans has been quite successful in this direction. Prosthetic organs like the bone, teeth and even the face have been successfully done elsewhere in the world. The bioprinting technology has also been useful when it comes to medical training for example in certain institutes in the USA 3D printed hearts (i.e. replicas) and other organs are used for training medical students in surgery. In India as well several firms are busy exploring the opportunities in this regard. Mention may be made of Novabeans and Anatomiz 3D LLP.

Construction made quicker and cheaper

Another exciting application of 3D printing can be in the construction industry. As far back as 2014, giant 3D printers in China were being used to construct as many as 10 houses in a single day. The cost was also minimal, with $5000 being the amount spent on each house (in Indian terms that are around 3.5 lakh rupees, an amount at which it is impossible to construct a livable house through conventional methods). What is also amazing is that resources like cement can also be saved if some amount of tweaking around is done. For example, a firm called 'Win Sun' is busy constructing houses out of recycled materials instead of cement, in the process conserving several thousand tonnes of cement each year. This is particularly encouraging news for countries like India where homelessness continues to be a major problem.

Some other areas where we will see major use of 3D printing is in the food industry. In 2013, food items such as chocolate were produced using 3D printers. This process uses organic molecules in the cartridges to ultimately create finished food products. It remains to be seen, however, if this technology will be widely accepted by the public. 3D printing can also be used in the field of environmental conservation. For example, a Brazilian NGO has been involved in creating tortoise shells and bird beaks. Animals who have lost or damaged these body parts due to injury are surgically fitted with these parts, allowing them to live a reasonably normal life.

Way forward

3D printing is an exciting new field where there are still lots of scope for progress. India still has enough time to catch up with the developed nations in the productive use of this technology, to ensure cost-effective production and resource conservation. But an important consideration needs to be the effect of these technologies on labor, especially in labor surplus economies like India. Adequate care has to be taken to properly equip the labor force with the skills needed to cope with the changing technology.


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