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3D printing

The practice of creating a physical object from a three-dimensional digital model by means of a 3D printer
© University of Exeter

3D-printing is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “the action or process of making a physical object from a three-dimensional digital model, typically by laying down many thin layers of a material in succession.”

We may all have some knowledge of 3D-printing for making small, fun objects such as toys and jewellery, but it is now being used to manufacture large-scale components too.

Typically, a computer takes a digital model of the required object, slices it into very thin sections and then instructs the printer to start at the bottom and build up the object layer by layer. This is a process known as ‘Additive Manufacturing’. No material is wasted as the printer only puts it exactly where it is needed, so there are significant environmental benefits concerning by-products and waste during manufacturing processes. It is also much faster than producing such objects by hand or with standard factory machinery.

You can watch the full video of this robotic, AI controlled 3D printer producing industrial scale components here:

This is an additional video, hosted on YouTube.

3D-printers use a range of materials, from liquid polymers or gels to metals or carbon fibre – and even food.

Rolls Royce have used 3D-printing to manufacture the front bearing housing of their latest jet engine. Made of titanium and measuring 1.5 meters in diameter, it is the largest component they’ve ever made using this process. They also use this process to make their aircraft engine blades.

The aviation industry continues to be at the forefront of 3D printing application. For example, the new Boeing 777X aircraft contains over 300 3D-printed parts

The Maclaren Formula One team have also been making and using 3D-printed parts on their cars – designed in their head office, but printed and fitted during a race weekend at the track itself.

The University of Exeter’s Digital Humanities Laboratory allows researchers to use high-tech equipment to find out more about our cultural heritage. They can curate digital exhibitions, carry out 2D and 3D digitisation, and create professional quality video and audio recordings. They are also able to create digital facsimiles of the objects, allowing them to be interpreted in a virtual space while protecting the original artefacts.

The impact of 3D-printing on business structure and organisation cannot be underestimated. The need for centralised factories will reduce. Instead, manufacturing will be distributed, with components printed in many separate locations.

Equally, on a smaller scale, we ourselves may have small 3D-printers in the home producing, among many possibilities, personally-tailored medicines (e.g. pills) for example. This would reduce the need for large, expensive, centralised manufacturing facilities even further.

There are three key factors which will affect the adoption of 3D-printing on a large scale:

  1.   The materials used by the printer (instead of buying products, businesses or individuals will need to buy the printable materials with appropriate properties, in sufficient quantity, and of suitable quality)

  2.   The digital model designs (rather than developing products businesses will need to develop digital models of products)

  3.    The skills required to make best use of a 3D-printer and the opportunities they present (there is a lack of such skills and knowledge in the workforce currently)

What business applications of 3D printing can you find to share in the comments section below?

© University of Exeter
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