Cutting Edge 4 min
Polymers that leave a lasting impression
Are 3D printers the start of a new industrial revolution, as some would have us believe? They could very well be. Although they are not quite within the reach of individuals, businesses are already exploiting their capabilities.
Polymers that leave a lasting impression
Polymers that leave a lasting impression

A multisectoral revolution

 

Speaking of an industrial revolution, when referring to 3D printing, may come as a surprise. Failing to do so would equate it to denying that it has already found its place within the major industrial groups. It is now possible to print large objects, a feat that was unimaginable just a few short years ago. Economically, a lot of hopes have been pinned on 3D printing. Some even say that the change will be even more important than the Internet.

Houston, we have a problem

What can you do when the handle of your socket wrench gives up the ghost? Here, you can just visit the nearest hardware store. But things become complicated when you are 400 km up, orbiting the Earth. A quick round trip is out of the question. Luckily, NASA has been investigating 3D printers for many years, going so far as to place one on the International Space Station (ISS). It only took a few minutes to model the socket wrench on Earth and to send it out to space, like a regular e-mail. The astronauts then simply 3D print the wrench. The feat is a modest one compared to the first step on the moon, but the 21st of December 2014 will remain in NASA's annals as the first time an object was designed on Earth and produced in space. No trivial achievement, as this process should help save thousands of dollars in the long-term as space flights would only need to take the vital minimum. At a cost of around € 22,000 per kg sent into space, the savings would be considerable.

Ce n’est en rien anecdotique, car grâce à ce procédé, des milliers de dollars devraient être économisés à terme puisque l’on n’embarquera que le minimum vital. A près de 22 000 € le kg envoyé dans l’espace, le calcul est vite fait.

 

The future Ariane 6 rocket, which is scheduled to take off in 2020, will also be fitted with many printed parts. In the aerospace industry, where parts are generally manufactured in small numbers, 3D printers are likely to be highly cost-efficient. Printing quality has reached such a level that it is perfectly conceivable that parts could be created using the process, in particular complex parts measuring less than 40 cm. Ariane 6, which should cost half as much as Ariane 5, is likely to make significant use of 3D printing to achieve this goal. The engines' injectors are printed parts. This enabled manufacturing periods to be reduced, while making the parts less complex as the 3D printed object only comprises three separate parts, while conventional injectors are made up of 270 different parts.

An impressive maiden flight

It is still only a drone at this stage, but it has a wingspan of four metres and weighs around twenty kilos. Above all other considerations, it is the very first printed airplane. Made entirely from polyamide, except for the electrical components, this craft created a lot of interest when it was unveiled at the last Berlin Aerospace Exhibition. Christened Thor, and designed by Airbus, the drone fulfilled its mission by flying perfectly during the many exhibitions in which it took part. It is not yet scheduled to be mass-produced, as Airbus considered it a test of everything that can be done with 3D printing. Although the major aircraft manufacturers such as Airbus and Boeing have long been exploring the possibilities offered by 3D printing by designing parts, in particular for the A350 and the 787 Dreamliner, Thor is a true first as never before has an aircraft emerged entirely from a printer.

The test became a reality, and Airbus has proven that the technology is viable as it enables considerable reductions in weight and does not require specific tools. Finally, printing in three dimensions reduces manufacturing waste to almost nothing as there is no longer any need to sculpt a part from a rough block of material, and instead it can just be created by depositing layer after layer of the chosen material according to the model previously designed on a computer..

The medical industry undergoes change

The health industry, and the field of medical devices in particular, is one of the most promising industries for the creators of 3D printers. Not many people know this, but all high-end hearing aids are now 3D printed to ensure a perfect fit in the wearer's ear. And this is just one example among many others, as demonstrated by the many scientific publications that are published every day. Until recently, replacing a bone, damaged by cancer, for instance, required "cutting" a new bone from titanium. Now, medical imaging devices, combined with 3D printers, enable tailored prostheses that perfectly match the part of the bone to be replaced, to be manufactured. Although titanium printing remains the most widespread solution, polymers such as PEEK which, combined with ceramic, do miracles for reconstructing damaged bones

PMMA is not far behind, as in 2014 a portion of a skull printed in Plexiglas was implanted in a patient whose bones were thickening so much that they compressed their brain.

Polymers come out to play

Doctors love them. Given the immense complexity of the human body, surgeons sometimes have very little visibility when "opening up" a patient. So, how do you train in order to develop the perfect gesture that will save a life? Specialised companies have been working on developing serious simulations over the past few years; these involve using models of human bodies, enabling surgeons to practice their skills without the risk of unnecessarily opening up anyone. Until recently, such simulations were usually computer-based. Surgeons would manipulate their scalpel and speculum in a virtual environment. Once again, the progress made in medical imaging now enables a perfect copy of the organ to be operated on to be created using a 3D printer./p>

Japanese company Fasotec investigated this avenue and just recently started offering impressively realistic lungs, bladders and other organs printed with a soft polymer whose structure is close to that of silicon. The organs are even filled with a liquid made to resemble blood and "embellished", where appropriate, with tumours.

A long road ahead for cars

3D printers have been very successful in the automotive industry. Although no printer is yet able to meet the industry's high demands in terms of output, they have nevertheless found a place in engineering firms and are used for designing, prototyping pilot series, and prototyping replacement parts. Personalising a vehicle with more than stickers is not on the books just yet, but the manufacturers of very high-end cars are considering the possibility of personalising the dashboards on the most exclusive models.

In the meantime, many companies throughout the world have set themselves the challenge of designing a vehicle entirely made by 3D printers. They are just prototypes at this time, or even stylistic exercises, but many projects are seeing the light of day. In 2014, American company Local Motors created a buzz by unveiling the first 3D-printed vehicle. After designing the main parts using a CAD (Computer-Assisted Design) program, the parts were created using a machine that deposited 212 layers of carbon-fibre-reinforced plastic (CFRP). The forty parts created in this way replaced around 2,000 parts of a conventional car! After successfully completing this experiment, the company is currently working towards designing an all-terrain vehicle able to take part in various international races.

The revolution has started, although many obstacles still remain to be overcome: printing times, mass production, etc. However, as with all new technologies, progress is swift and can be measured in months. Currently, the construction industry is taking a close interest in 3D printing techniques. Many start-ups around the world have risen to the challenge and have put forward full-size prototypes of buildings entirely made using 3D printing.

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