EVERYBODY’S heard of the Great Wall of China. It’s probably the most famous wall in the world. But there’s another wall in China, in the town of Suzhou in the Jiangsu province, which has a unique distinction: It’s officially the world’s largest 3D-printed structure in the world.
Measuring more than 500 metres, it’s what’s called a revetment wall, which are essentially sloping structures placed on river banks or cliffs to absorb the impact of incoming water. Traditional revetment walls involve expensive building materials and are difficult to construct. The excavation and foundation-laying involved in traditional revetment wall construction can cause various environmental problems.
3D printing allows for very quick construction of a wall that follows the natural contour of the riverbanks. This not only puts less stress on the environment but also provides a natural habitat for local flora and fauna to grow and thrive.
So, what is this wonder technology called 3D printing all about exactly? It’s a form of manufacturing that’s described as “additive” because objects are created by adding materials to it, layer by layer.
The whole process begins by coming up with a graphical model of the object to be created. These are usually done using Computer-Aided Design (or CAD) software. After that comes digital slicing which breaks down the model into many layers. The design for each layer is then sent to the 3D printer, which will “print” out the model according to the specifications sent by the slicer programme.
There are several different types of 3D printers out there, using different processes but the most common one — called Direct 3D Printing — uses technology similar to the inkjet technology so common in everyday printers. Basically, a nozzle moves around dispensing the materials that solidify to form a new cross-section of the object.
3D printing is remarkably versatile and can be used to create practically whatever you can imagine. They can print in plastic, metal or even animal cells. Let’s look at three novel but very useful uses of 3D printing technology.
HARD-TO-FIND REPLACEMENT PARTS
When you have old machinery that requires spare parts, sometimes it’s very hard to find those parts because their original manufacturer is no longer around. Certain aircrafts from the American Air Force such as the B-52s, B-1s and KC-135s have been around for a long time but are still in operation.
With each passing year, it gets harder and more expensive to find replacement parts for these planes. That’s where 3D printing comes to the rescue. The Air Force used to pay US$8,000 for a latrine panel that it now is able to get 3D printed for US$300. Air Force now has numerous contracts with 3D printing contractors to get replacement parts for older planes.
Bioprinting refers to the creation of human organs through a process similar to 3D printing whereby biological material is created layer by layer. Donated organs often face rejection by the recipient’s body. With the bioprinting approach, the patients’ own cells can be used to create new organs.
Although it’s still very much at a nascent stage, scientists in this area say that replacement organs could become a reality within a couple of decades. There have been some small successes lately.
Earlier this year, a team of scientists from Israel created the first 3D-printed heart. It was a very small version of a heart (only the size of a cherry) but it had the key elements of a heart, including blood vessels, ventricles and chambers.
It wasn’t a fully functioning heart though. The individual cells of this cherry-sized heart were able to contract but only individually and not together. To make a fully functioning heart, obviously the scientists have to solve this problem. They’ll also need to make the heart much bigger.
Meanwhile, scientists at the Centre for Regenerative Medicine at the University of Edinburgh have managed to turn stem cells into liver tissue which can be kept alive in culture for more than a year.
We’ve all heard about vegan or vegetarian meat created by companies like Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods, which have their own processes of creating fake meat in a lab. But how about 3D printing fake meat?
Yes, it can be done and a few companies are using this technology to make realistic beef and chicken made from plant protein. Like all 3D printing, creating such food involves printing layers of material until an item resembling steak or a piece of chicken is produced.
A company called Redefine Meat plans to launch its 3D-printed plant-based meat in restaurants throughout Europe early next year. Another company, Novameat, expects to sell plant-based 3D printers to restaurants in Spain and Italy by the end of next year so that these restaurants can make their own fake meat. The company has said that consumers should be able to print their own fake meat in their own kitchens by 2022.
A BRIGHT FUTURE FOR 3D PRINTING
There’s a lot to like about 3D printing. However, it’ll take time for the technology to mature and become mainstream. We’re talking decades. Manufacturers at the Space Tech Expo in Europe in November said that they’re increasingly using 3D printing to build parts, but that the technology isn’t as simple as some might think it is.
“There’s such a misconception that you buy a 3D printer, plug it in, put in your euros and that’s it — parts start popping out,” said Josh Mook, an engineer from GE Additive. “It’s really not anything like that. You have to have a respect for the technology and you still need a level of sophistication.”
However, 3D printing is clearly the future of manufacturing. Said Ole Geisen, head of additive manufacturing engineering services at Siemens: “There’s no stopping 3D printing anymore. It’s only a matter of timing and how much it will cover.”
Oon Yeoh is a consultant with experiences in print, online and mobile media. Reach him at [email protected].