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Adding the next dimension – what additive technology could mean for the future of printing

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

3D printing is not a new concept, it’s something that has been in and out of the media spotlight for some time now, and its origins can be traced back to 1983. A form of manufacturing that some claimed would spark the beginning of a new technology-based industrial revolution, 3D printing is an exciting concept that opens up windows of opportunity that could provide enormous benefits on a world-wide scale. So how exactly does 3D printing work, and what does it mean for the future of the print industry?

3D printers are machines similar to inkjet printers that create objects, made out of a variety of materials (though most commonly molten plastic) through an additive process. This means that the object is built up on tiny layers of printed material stacked on top of each other to create the final product. You can imagine each layer as an incredibly thinly sliced cross-section of the object. It all starts with designing a virtual 3D object that you want to print, using a CAD (computer aided design) file. This CAD file can be made using a 3D modelling application, or by making a copy of an existing object using a 3D scanner.     

Currently 3D printers are used to create a growing variety of products. Prototypes and concept models were always at the origins of 3D printing, and it is still used as an important way of saving money and speeding up design and pre-production processes for many companies. However since then, 3D printing is now being used to make production tools and parts for formula 1 car engines, as well as having a strong hold on the space and aerospace sector, where parts of rockets have been created using additive manufacturing processes. However, perhaps one of the most advanced areas of 3D printing is in the medical sector. For the last few years, 3D printers have been creating prosthetic limbs for both humans and animals, with a 5 year old girl who was born without fully formed fingers becoming the first child in the UK to receive a prosthetic hand created out of 3D printing technologies in 2014.    

An extension of this that is still being developed is bio-printing. Bio-printing technology is the same concept as any other 3D printing technology, except the material used is living cells. By printing layers of living cells onto a gel medium or sugar matrix, body parts and organs can be created out of real living tissue. While replacement organs have been created by hand for a while now, additive technology allows precise placement of cells, and avoids human error, in a stunningly short amount of time. This method could revolutionize the medical industry, creating transplant organs out of the patients own tissues that would ensure not being rejected. Research is under way in American and China, with Chinese scientists predicting that fully-functional, printed organs may be available in the next 10-20 years.

If you’ve been watching the Chanel 4 series ‘Humans’, this may all be starting to sound a little too real. One thing is for sure – additive technologies are being developed slowly and surely behind the scenes, and while this doesn’t directly affect the type of printing we carry out at Manor Printing, it will bring a whole new dimension (sorry) to the way we look at the industry.    

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