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3D and 4D Printing & Additive Manufacturing: Influencing the Modern Factory

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The burgeoning technology of 3D printing has taken the industry and popular culture by storm. For instance, a story recently surfaced that a high school student from San Diego utilized 3D printing to make face shields to protect healthcare workers during the COVID-19 pandemic. This is just a small example of the power of 3D printing. But how can 3D printing impact your organization and improve the efficiency of the manufacturing process? Below, we’ll discuss the basics of 3D printing (also known as additive manufacturing) and how businesses are leveraging this growing technology to benefit their organization’s bottom line.

What is 3D Printing/Additive Manufacturing?

Simply put, 3D printing (additive manufacturing) is the construction of a three-dimensional object from a digital 3D model or a CAD (computer-aided design) model. In industry settings, additive manufacturing is viewed as a revolutionary tool for its ability to create lighter, stronger parts and systems. Over the past decade, organizations have been using additive manufacturing to deliver materials with improved performance, simplified fabrication, and complex geometries.

Benefits and Applications

Through a multitude of different processes - material extrusion, directed energy deposition, material jetting, binder jetting, etc. - additive manufacturing is currently influencing organizations across a wide range of industries. Here are just some of the industries that are utilizing additive manufacturing to their advantage:

  1. Automotive: Instead of taking weeks to produce various parts, the McLaren auto racing team used 3D printing to manufacture crucial parts in their Formula 1 race cars. Furthermore, additive manufacturing’s ability to rapidly prototype and turnaround hard-to-make auto parts may make it a key cog in the auto-manufacturing process in the future.
  2. Aerospace: Because of additive manufacturing’s ability to create lighter, weight-saving parts, it is often a perfect fit for aerospace projects. For example, NASA found success in additive manufacturing after successfully testing an SLM-printed rocket injector during a hot-fire test in 2013. Additionally, the FAA approved the first 3D printed part for use in a commercial jet engine only two years later.
  3. Healthcare: Building on the aforementioned face-shields for COVID-19 doctors and nurses, additive manufacturing has been used for a variety of medical purposes. Kidney cancer models assisting surgeons in preoperative assessments, surgical implants for bone cancer patients, and synthetic organs are all examples of 3D printed materials utilized to benefit sick patients.

4D Printing and the Future of Additive Manufacturing

4D printing builds on 3D printing technology. However, it differs in that the printed material can change shape in post-production if given a trigger - whether that be water, heat, wind, etc.. While this technology is still largely experimental, it offers some potentially exciting solutions to vexing issues. For example, researchers from the University of Wollongong in Australia developed a 4D printed water valve that opens and closes depending on the temperature of the water. It’s not too hard to see how these 4D printed devices have the potential to make a substantial influence on day-to-day operations in factories and streamline cumbersome tasks.

3D printed artificial heart

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