3D printing is great, but not for everyone

Technical University of Denmark

Everything can be printed – from garden gnomes to pizzas – and we will all soon have a 3D printer at home, enabling us to produce whatever we want. This was the media’s prediction in the period after the first 3D printing patents expired in 2009 and the printers became cheap enough for ordinary people to obtain one.

But as you know, things didn’t work out that way. Not least because this statement did not entirely make sense – very few people are able to draw the object they want to print on a computer, which is the first step in the 3D-printing process.

“No, 3D printing did not become an industrial revolution as predicted; rather, it has been an evolution. But the technology is still undergoing huge development within certain special niches and is now the second fastest growing technology in the world,” says David Bue Pedersen.

He is a senior researcher at DTU and probably the person in Denmark who knows the most about 3D printing. He was the first to complete a PhD on the subject back in 2012, and he has since established a thriving research environment at DTU.

After the hype

David gets annoyed thinking about the hugely inflated expectations for 3D printing. Therefore, he has chosen to differentiate himself from the initial hype around the technology and focus his research on the industrial application, which in technical terms is called ‘additive manufacturing’. He talks enthusiastically about the technology’s great potential:

“It’s incredibly easy to 3D print very advanced components that would be extremely difficult to make conventionally,” he begins.

Gas turbines for the aviation industry, for example, must be able to cope with extremely high combustion temperatures. This means you want to build them in harder and stronger materials, but these are also much more difficult to work. On a 3D printer, you can build up your workpiece to nearly the final geometry, and then you just have to finish it off with a diamond tool.

You can likewise avoid a cumbersome casting technique involving a lot of handwork if you 3D print individually fitted hearing aids. And small components such as the hearing aids’ sound channels, which are easily clogged with earwax, may even be printed with cilia to make them self-cleaning.

Metal objects, typically made of titanium, can also be printed with porous surfaces that, for example, enable bone to ‘grow into’ implants such as artificial hips, making it possible to avoid the glue that in some cases has proven problematic.

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