“I vaguely know what 3D printing is, but don’t really know how we can use it,” said an industry captain who runs a large manufacturing unit in Bangalore. A few others we spoke to said things that are equally vague.
The conclusion, call it a generalisation if you wish, is simple: 3D printing, a technology which is set to disrupt industries across the world, is yet to be seriously noticed by Indian manufacturers. Talk about being behind the technology curve.
To be sure, 3D printing is not mainstream yet. However, it is increasingly gaining acceptance in countries like China and America to design and build prototypes and functional parts.
Barring a handful of new companies and a couple of research labs, India is relatively unexposed to the 3D printing phenomenon. In India, companies like Cycloid, Caddcenter, Netgains, Amptronics and some government labs have 3D printing capacity.
While India has expressed its intentions to become a manufacturing hub and compete with China, it hasn’t been very lucky or successful at it. The slow adoption of newer technologies pose a major challenge to closing the gap with China.
But in India, you can’t blame the manufacturers for not being up to scratch with new technologies. Our problems are more basic; like electricity shortage, taxes and availability of water. Industrial hubs often resort to staggered holidays and even suffer losses due to shortage of electricity. Water is not only a problem of the industries but also that of large Indian cities.
Printing 3D models at home
Companies like MakerBot have made 3D printing available to general consumers. Now you can pick up a 3D printer for around $ 2000 and print models by downloading the design files that are now readily available on websites across the internet. All you need to do is download the file for your favorite model, plug in the 3D printer and print. Viola! Your model is ready. (Actually it’s not that quick, it takes more time than that)
What is 3D printing?
3D printers are used for rapid prototyping which involves sending a Computer Aided Design (CAD) to the printer that is then sliced by a program and printed using a material layer by layer until the full shape is formed.
Rapid prototyping does not reproduce models with the same quality and consistency as conventional prototyping methods. This might not be the case in the future as more and more industries and sectors are adopting this technology and more R&D is being performed on various technologies in 3D printing. Also for industries that are design conscious and have time constraints 3D printing is a better choice.
3D printing uses additive printing technology to print objects in 3D. The printer prints 3D models by adding materials like metals, plastics or polymers layer by layer over each other until the required 3 dimensional shape is formed. The printers can print with a precision of 0.1 mm or more, giving the technology to print precise designs with accuracy.
3D printing has already been adopted by industries like aerospace, healthcare, automobile, defense and Hollywood. There is also a growing consumer market for home based 3D printers.
Current application of 3D printing
Automobile industry has been using 3D printers to print parts of car and making prototypes of future designs. Automotive companies like GM and Jaguar Land Rover are already using 3D printing to produce customized parts for their vehicles .Ford Motor is using 3D printing methods to produce prototypes of of various components like air vents,cylinder heads.
3D printing in Aerospace
The Gas Turbine Research Establishment (GTRE), Bangalore, India is a government laboratory involved in in R&D of marine and aeronautical versions of gas turbines. The Kaveri jet engine, a flagship product of GTRE, was commissioned for the HAL Tejas aircraft. With over 2,500 Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM) components, the Kaveri jet engine prototype is said to be the most complex rapid prototype assembly ever created. The total cost to produce the FDM assembly was about $20,000.
GE is employing 3-D printing to build fuel injector nozzle for its jet engines. Each nozzle is printed as a single piece using laser sintering (a process based on atomic diffusion) on cobalt chromium. The new nozzle is faster to make, five times more durable and lighter. The company plans to make 100,000 of its engine parts using 3D printing by 2020.
NASA has used 3D printed parts in its next NASA Mars Rovers. About 70 of the parts that make up the rover were built using 3D Printers through a process called FDM Technology or additive manufacturing.
3D printing has been used by filmmakers for some time now, especially for Sci-Fi movies for making costumes and other pieces of the films like weapons or devices. Directors of movies like the Iron Man series relied heavily on 3D printing to produce physical Iron Man suits for use in live action scenes. These printers could print with better accuracy, efficiency and in shorter time than traditional methods previously adopted by costume designers.
Healthcare & 3D printing
Doctors have been using 3D printers to develop prosthetics for reconstructive surgeries recently. Due to the precise nature of this technology, intricate prosthetics are able to be designed.
Jewellery and home decor designers have been using 3D printer to produce some intricate and interesting looking objects. With 3D printing designers are able to produce objects that were previously tedious to produce, due to their intricate nature, and a much faster rate.
Future application of 3D printing
An upcoming application of 3D printing technology in the healthcare segment called Bio Printing involves the printing of tissues with cells. With this new development we will be able to print organs and other body parts for transplant or repair. The printing material will be a bio ink which is made up of a biodegradable ink along with the human cells. The bio ink will be applied onto a scaffolding like structure which will be 3D printed from a scan of the organ to be repaired, like a ear, kidney or a finger. Once the bio ink sets onto the scaffolding the structure will dissolve or fall off on its own, leaving behind the printed organ. A huge advantage of this methods is that, organ rejection will be reduced as the cells used in the bio ink will be off the patients themselves. Currently this technology is in pre-clinical phase.
Concrete printing is a type of extrusion based additive printing process capable of producing full scale construction and architectural components. A cement based mortar is used to model an object using a controlled extrusion process. Large structures such as panels and walls can be produced with precise design customizations. Engineers hope to build a house in 20 hours time using this process in the future.
Some Myths about consumer Rapid Prototyping aka 3D printing
Models that you see printed on consumer 3D printers might not have the quality and usability as those printed using expensive rapid prototype machines.
3D printed models or parts might not have the strength as that of the ones designed using traditional prototyping. This is mainly due to the layer by layer printing process adopted by the 3D printers. The weaker the bond between the layers, the weaker the printed model is.
The final finish of the 3D printed object might not be like what you come to see in the promotional materials or promotional materials you see. The printer’s finish (like resolution in case of inkjet printers) might not be as good as the industrial level prototypers.
3D printing takes a lot more time than you think. the only way to print faster is by increasing the thickness of the layers being printed. This in turn will reduce the finish of the final printed model as the transition from layer to layer can be clearly seen.
Dark side of 3D printing
While the technology has great potential in medical science and other areas, it has a dark side too. 3D printing, as demonstrated by Defense Distributed, an online group which designs firearms, can be used to distribute weapons design online which can be later printed out at different locations.
This might be a small hindrance in the bright future ahead for 3D printing technology when you looks at the possibilities 3D printing holds in the future. In a way any technology, for that matter, in the wrong hands can be put to use for the wrong reasons.