Everything You Need to Know about 3D Printing

By  James O'Brien

Manufacturing is undergoing a massive change: 3D printing is altering the very basics of how things are made.

“Most people have no idea of the transformative and powerful impact 3D printing has already had on their lives,” Cathy Lewis, chief marketing officer at 3D Systems, told General Electric, in a recent article. “From the cars we drive … to all the smart devices we rely on – the physical products we use today come to us through 3D printing.”

In the midst of this transformation, we are poised to also see our very quality of life and access to powerful new procedures lead to new methods of ensuring, restoring, and augmenting our health. Before diving into those kinds of details, however, we should pause first and explore what 3D printing is, exactly, and why it stands to have such a wide-reaching effect.

3D Printing: Beginnings to the Present

Our story starts in 1984, when an engineer named Charles Hull invented a new way of creating prototypes for new products.

Rather than having to wait months for new designs to come back from shops that custom-made test items, Hull developed a method to build up objects right in his own lab, using lasers to harden layers of a liquid plastic-like material. Adding layer upon layer, one-by-one, the beam of light "printed" its first object. It was an eye-wash cup. The first 3D printer was born.

It was called a stereolithograph, in that version, and it's still around and used in some sectors. Newer iterations work more like inkjets – squeezing out layers of material rather than solidifying a shape out of liquid – and other types use magnetic fields to pull material together.

Along the way, new applications have unfolded apace.

  •  By 1988, commercial 3D printing got underway. Industries that put a foot in early included auto manufacturers, aerospace, and makers of medical equipment.
  •  Circa 1996, innovative ways of using 3D printers included modeling the bones and insides of surgery candidates, so that doctors could explore options before performing operations on an actual patient.
  • In the mid-2000s, 3D printing entered a kind of maturity. Advances in the technology meant mass customization became possible – in other words, 3D-printing businesses could provide on-demand manufacturing of individual objects in more cost-effective ways.

Especially interesting are the uses for 3D printers in the healthcare space. As living tissue becomes one of the materials with which the process can work, new (potentially animal-free) opportunities to test drugs and cosmetics begin to emerge. And custom-made parts for human implants – from joints to organs, to prosthetics of numerous kinds – are also on the horizon. We're not there yet, but research has put us on the path to realizing these applications. Furthermore, these are the kind of changes that draw the healthcare and insurance industries into the 3D-printing conversation.

"Anything that goes into the human body, there are going to be substantial risks associated with that," said Dr. Jon Harrop, director of IDTechEx. "Industries will want to mitigate those risks by having proper quality assurance, and so forth."

The future, it turns out, is upon us (and developing quickly) – and the questions we'll need to answer to meet it with best practices and procedures are upon us and evolving as well.