Last week an interesting research paper, published in Nature and covered at the UPenn website, hit the mainstream media with hundreds of mentions of 3d printing. The research itself is fascinating, but the implications that is has for the 3d printing industry are even more compelling. Additive fabrication machines, 3d printers, are just tools and the real growth they are capable of creating for the industry will come mostly from all the new devices, components, and products they can create. Printing presses were an amazing advancement, but the greatest part about them was how they made it so easy to distribute ideas and thoughts without having to painstakingly rewrite each word. By making it easy to fabricate a design, 3d printers allow semi skilled laborers to easily create precision components that would have traditionally taken many hours of machining on expensive equipment with costly materials.
Creating unique precision components is tough enough but the noted research paper went one step further by using sugar. Because it is easy to dissolve sugar allowed the academics to create a mold that could be washed away leaving the network structure for blood vessels to grow. Even a single copy of such a device would have taken a skilled fabricator untold hours of work, and that is ignoring the fact that there must be a very limited number of people who can be called “skilled” when it comes to creating precision sugar sculptures. With traditional creation techniques the research team would have had to learn on their own how to work with such a substance which itself could warrant published articles. People who understand the scientific process will also appreciate the amount of preparation that would go into setting up any sort of study. Instead of dedicating hundreds of hours to creating the molds the 3d printer capabilities mean that now the lab can create these devices in mass with minimal oversight, turning the lab into a small scale production facility. This allows them to supply themselves and others with the necessary sugar molds while still dedicating a majority of their time to further research.
The innovative combination of leading edge research, new fabrication techniques, and unique materials produced more than just a new component. This new combination arguably produced its own small scale industry. In a time where many are looking for the best way to stimulate the economy it should not be difficult to understand why that is so revolutionary. I am continuously excited by all of the new possibilities that additive manufacturing creates and even though these devices can possibly replace human workers they also will require skilled technicians and operators. As more designers, engineers, hobbyists, and inventors are exposed to the advances of 3d printing we will surely continue to be amazed by all of the new companies and industries their creations lead to.
Seen any great new applications or advances in 3d printing or additive manufacturing? Feel free to leave a comment or send a note.