Although not currently readily available for your average Joe to go out into the street and buy one, 3D printers are fast becoming the popular technology of today. If you have a little bit of technical know-how, and don’t mind a fairly hefty printer taking up space, you can even purchase a 3D printer for yourself, or at least purchase all the parts to build one.
3D printing is a wonderful new technology that is still in its final design stages at the moment, but if you’ve been following the technical news you may have seen some of the fantastic things already printed with 3D printers today. There are a number of problems the modern world faces that may be solved – albeit not overnight- by the implementation of 3D printers into the workplace, into the factory setting, even into hospitals at some point in the future.
So what does this mean for engineers who specialise in creating bespoke equipment for industrial companies or computer programs? Some experts have expressed concerns that this new 3D technology may make the applications engineering business market obsolete; however this is not necessarily the case.
How do 3D Printers Work?
Like with any sort of 3D design or modelling, a design must first be built in a 3D modelling program. The design has to be flawless, with all surfaces accounted for; otherwise there will discrepancies in your printing. Unlike our brains, computers cannot make assumptions and so will only work on what they have been given, so make sure all the gaps are filled in!
There are three main ways a 3D Printer will ‘print’ each object; Direct 3D Printing, Binder 3D Printing and Photopolymerization. Direct 3D Printing uses inkjet technology to move a nozzle back and forth, dispensing a fluid onto the printer tray. Unlike inkjet printers however, this printer uses waxes and plastic polymers as opposed to ink, and also move up and down as well as left and right, creating a structure which solidifies to create a cross-section which will eventually become a 3D object.
Binder 3D Printing works in a similar way, although instead it uses two separate materials in the printing layers which come together to form a single layer. These materials are a fine dry powder plus a binding element, normally liquid glue. The final method is Photopolymerization, whereby drops of liquid plastic are then exposed to an ultraviolet laser beam. This then converts the liquid plastic into a solid, forming the print.
What Can You Make with a 3D Printer?
Like with many of these inventions, often the only limit to what you can print is your imagination. Everything from spare parts to figurines to working instruments and even coffee cups and clothing! It is all dependent on whether or not the materials needed for these creations can be condensed into a liquid or powder form; such as the 3D printed clothing, which uses the Photopolymerization method to solidify thermoplastics into a wearable form.
Scientific breakthroughs have seen people being able to 3D print scans of an unborn child, 3D printing skin grafts and even managing to successfully 3D print a working synthetic ear. There are whispers in the works that 3D organ printing is in development; however it is not yet entirely clear whether or not this is a hoax. Regardless, 3D printing skin grafts is still a fantastic feat.
Using 3D Printers to build Speciality Industry Equipment
Although currently there are a limited number of uses for 3D printing, new and exciting discoveries are always being made, so there may be a time in the near future where we can even ‘3D print’ metal objects for use in engineering. As it stands the 3D printers can only currently handle plastics and similar materials, but this is still incredibly useful for small programs, stabilisation trays and even spare parts for 3D printers!
It is not clear how close we are to seeing a 3D printer with the ability to create industry specific parts and equipment, but due to the way 3D printing is progressing so far, it is safe to say that it is certainly not outside of the realms of possibility at this moment in time.
What this Means for Engineers who specialise in Bespoke Equipment
If harnessed correctly, this could be a turning point for engineering for the better. 3D printing is at the moment still unfinished, however more and more uses for 3D printing technology are being discovered to this day, so it is not to be dismissed as a passing fad.
By creating the initial bespoke ‘design’ for the equipment, there is still a need for engineers and designers to complete this design process. Once this design has been created for the bespoke piece, the 3D printer can then mass produce that single part, allowing for far less discrepancies, once a design is finalised and approved.
This doesn’t necessarily mean that there will be less of a demand for human engineering when it comes to bespoke equipment, only that bespoke equipment may be easier to mass produce, with the help of a fully operated, working 3D printer. Of course due to the materials used in the printer, this only works for small equipment pieces and will not be implemented for heavy machinery at the current time.
When it comes down to it, machines can only go so far when innovating human engineering. While programmed machines can perform a task to a speed and precision far better than a human worker, it will still require a manual input of the initial design, or any edits needed to be inputted manually. It is for this reason that we will continue to see professional application engineers working alongside programmed machinery, to create a faster, brighter future for the rest of us.
Article supplied by Mike James, a content writer for www.appeng.co.uk, a UK based application-engineering specialist operating from the East Sussex studio since 1983.