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While 3D printing, or additive manufacturing, is transforming the industrial world, it also has opened up new possibilities in other areas, such as smart materials and bioprinting.

October 3, 2023

4 Min Read
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Luke Smoothy

With its seemingly limitless potential, fast-evolving 3D printing/additive manufacturing is changing the way goods and services are designed, manufactured, and consumed. But there are even greater transformations on the horizon. Here are some of the emerging innovations that 3D printing is bringing to different industries and sectors.

Bioprinting

Bioprinting is the process of using 3D printing to create biological structures, such as tissues, organs, and cells, from biomaterials, such as cells, proteins, and polymers. Hailed as one of the most exciting trends, bioprinting will become commonplace as the technology matures, carrying with it the power to save lives by offering solutions for organ shortages, disease modeling, drug testing, and tissue engineering, thus revolutionising the fields of medicine, biotechnology, and bioengineering. What started as a regenerative medicine tool, 3D bioprinting’s ultimate goal is the production of artificial organs for transplantation.

England’s University of Birmingham is leading development of the technology through the creation of a new 3D bioprinting process that speeds up and simplifies the creation of tissue-compatible artificially engineered organs, making wider adoption more likely. Another medical first involving 3D bioprinting technology is the development of a new method of immunotherapy for treating cancer using natural killer cells (NK cells).

4D printing and smart materials

4D printing technology uses the 3D printing process to create objects with shape-memory alloys, hydrogels, or self-healing polymers that can change their shape, properties, or functions over time or in response to external stimuli, such as temperature, light, or moisture. While 3D printing creates static structures, 4D printing and smart materials have the potential to create adaptive and responsive products and systems, such as self-assembling structures, wearable devices, or soft robotics.

Whilst 3D printing offers an alternative way of producing the same product that might have been created using CNC machining or injection molding, 4D printing creates parts that traditional manufacturing methods simply cannot achieve. This is one reason why 4D printing will transform many industries.

Smart medical implants and tissue engineering are two areas being targeted to benefit from the 4D printing approach in medical engineering applications. Software and hardware for a 4D printer with applications in the biomedical industry have also been developed by researchers at Universidad Carlos III de Madrid (UC3M), making it possible to create soft robotics, intelligent sensors, and substrates that send signals to various cellular systems, among other things.

Hybrid and multi-material printing

A final trend in 3D printing is hybrid and multi-material printing, which is the process of combining 3D printing with other manufacturing methods, such as CNC machining, injection molding, or laser cutting, to create complex and multifunctional products. It is used to create objects that consist of more than one material — metals, ceramics, or composites — to achieve different properties and performance. Hybrid printing and multi-material printing have the potential to expand the capabilities and applications of 3D printing by enabling the creation of products that are stronger, lighter, or more durable.

These approaches have further expanded the frontiers of manufacturing, enabling the creation of complex geometries, functional end-use parts, and even fully assembled products.

With the boundaries of manufacturing and prototyping being stretched like never before thanks to the potential offered by additive manufacturing and 3D printing, combined with technological advancements including faster printing speeds, larger build volumes, and improved material properties, the decade ahead holds even greater promise. Moreover, the integration of 3D printing with emerging technologies such as AI and robotics heralds an extraordinary new era of automated and efficient manufacturing processes. Naturally, there will be challenges ahead, but now is the time for manufacturers to fully embrace the potential of 3D printing.

About the author

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Luke Smoothy founded Get It Made in 2011 with just £200, initially as a side-hustle alongside his job as a furniture designer. After experiencing first-hand how difficult manufacturing can be, he was driven by a mission to make manufacturing simple and find a better solution for designers and engineers everywhere. Today, the London-based company is a multi-million-pound-a-year business and an ISO 9001­–accredited manufacturer, providing manufacturing services to companies across the globe. By removing risk and adding specialist expertise to the manufacturing process, Get It Made has steadily grown to become a 3D printing, CNC machining, molding, and aluminium extrusion expert.

Smoothy has worked on thousands of complex projects for customers across various disciplines including aerospace, medical, and R&D. He has worked with companies such as Hitachi, Airbus, and Stanley as well as institutions such as the Imperial College of London.

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