10 Applications and Examples of 3D Printing Uses
The use of 3D printing has exploded since the turn of the 21st century and has changed the traditional ways of manufacturing products. With 3D printers, machines that build complex, intricate parts layer-by-layer, limited only by the designer's imagination and the capabilities of the printed materials, seemingly anything can be manufactured. 3D printing, compared to traditional manufacturing methods such as CNC machining or injection molding, requires less skill and expertise and less upfront preparation to make parts. From advanced aerospace components and medical implants to tools and equipment to home decor, the applications of 3D printing are evidently endless. This article will review 10 applications of 3D printing, and briefly discuss different types of 3D printing, the benefits of 3D printing, and related topics.
3D printing has revolutionized how prosthetics are created. As 3D printing processes and techniques are refined, the creation of custom, tailored prosthetics becomes more straightforward and more efficient. Prosthetics can quickly be modeled in CAD (computer-aided design) software and fabricated by 3D printing. If any errors or defects are found in a 3D-printed prosthetic, it can easily be modified in CAD, and reprinted. Consequently, 3D printing of prosthetics can lead to better patient outcomes, comfort, and satisfaction.
Another application of 3D printing is the ability to fabricate replacement parts easily. This can be enormously beneficial to consumers since it reduces both the need to travel to pick up parts and the long lead times to obtain them. 3D printing enables consumers and businesses to maximize the value of their purchases and spend more time on more important matters.
The 3D printing of implants allows the construction of more specialized products for patients. Patient outcomes are improved when parts with complex geometries can be fabricated quickly. Items like tooth implants, heart valves, knee replacements, and maxillofacial implants are all examples of implants that can be 3D printed. Soon, entire organs could be 3D printed which could dramatically improve outcomes for patients awaiting transplants. Figure 1 below shows a 3D-printed dental implant:
3D-printed dental implant.
Image Credit: Shutterstock.com/Eduard Tanga
3D printing can create drugs of different shapes and sizes and can be used to spatially distribute active and inactive ingredients in the body. This enables 3D-printed drugs to have special delivery profiles that can be tailored to patients’ specific needs. While only one drug, Spritam®, a levetiracetam produced by Aprecia Pharmaceuticals has been 3D printed, 3D printing may enable on-demand, local fabrication of additional drugs in the future.
Natural disasters such as hurricanes, wildfires, and tornados can leave many people homeless for an extended time. 3D printing can help alleviate the hardships of affected families by building houses, hospitals, and other structures much faster than the time it takes to build these structures by traditional means.
As humanity looks to expand its presence in space, 3D printing can be used for the on-demand fabrication of tools, equipment, and entire structures in space and extraterrestrial environments. Meanwhile on Earth, 3D printing can be used to produce advanced aerospace components such as airframes, avionics housings, and more. Overall, 3D printing can help make space travel more cost-effective and consequently aid in creating a sustainable human presence.
The fashion industry is notorious for the amount of waste generated by discarded apparel. 3D printing can help alleviate some of this waste by enabling the fabrication of custom clothing. By allowing consumers the ability to print clothing specific to their measurements and fashion tastes on demand, consumers can obtain more of what they want with less waste.
Many of the objects that people encounter every day are designed with the average body type or size in mind. Items like doors, chairs, clothing, keyboards, and desks are designed to be used by a person with an average build within a particular region. This is difficult for many people who fall outside of these “average build” bounds and can lead to discomfort and disability. 3D printing allows the creation of custom-fitted personal products which improve ergonomics, comfort, and safety for everyone.
3D printing can be used to provide students with tangible objects that can be used for learning. Items like topographical maps or biological replicas can be 3D printed to enhance learning. As a result, 3D printing can be used to catalyze creativity, better learning, and foster collaboration.
3D printing can also be used to print food. Today, stem cells are already used to make lab-grown meat and vegetables. In the future, 3D printing could be used to produce large amounts of fruits, vegetables, and meat, which can help to feed the world while reducing the amount of land dedicated to livestock and farming.
There are many different types of 3D printing technologies. Some 3D printing technologies use UV-sensitive photopolymers, some fuse metal or plastic powders, and others extrude molten plastic. The different types of 3D printing technologies are listed below:
- Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM): FDM is a 3D printing technology where a melted plastic filament is extruded by a heated nozzle to build parts.
- Selective Laser Sintering (SLS): SLS is a type of 3D printing that uses a powerful laser to melt and fuse polymeric powders to build parts.
- Direct Metal Laser Sintering (DMLS): DMLS is a type of 3D printing similar to SLS that uses metal powders instead of polymeric powders.
- Stereolithography (SLA): SLA is a 3D printing technology that uses a UV (ultraviolet) lamp to build successive layers of UV-curable photopolymers into final parts.
- Digital Light Processing (DLP): DLP is a 3D printing technology similar to SLA that uses UV light and a series of mirrors to cure photopolymers and build parts.
- Electron Beam Melting (EBM): EBM is a 3D printing process similar to SLS and DMLS, but it uses a beam of electrons rather than a laser to melt and fuse the powders that form the parts.
- Polyjet: Polyjet is a type of 3D printing similar to SLA and DLP, but deposits and cures photopolymers simultaneously with a UV lamp.
3D printers contain hundreds of parts that work together in sync to build unique and complex parts. While the exact construction of 3D printers will vary depending on the manufacturer and type of 3D printer, all 3D printers share similar characteristics and components. The main parts of 3D printers are listed below:
- Print Head: The print head contains the components that deposit 3D printing materials. The exact components will differ depending on the type of 3D printer. For instance, an FDM printer has a nozzle and extruder in its print head while an SLS printer has a servomotor and mirror.
- Build Tray: The build tray or print bed is the portion of the 3D printer where parts are constructed. Build trays can be heated or unheated depending on the type of 3D printer.
- Motion Control: Motion control includes motors, belts, lead screws, end stops, and other mechanical equipment that is essential to the motion of the 3D printer.
- Motherboard: The motherboard contains all the electrical components that form the logic and control of the 3D printer. It tells the 3D printer the position, print speed, amount of material, and other settings needed to ensure an accurate part.
- Power Supply: The power supply is essential for any piece of electrical equipment. More powerful power supplies are required for larger machines and for machines that require higher temperatures during printing.
3D printing can be very precise. The level of precision obtained largely depends on the 3D printing method used. It can be further optimized by proper print preparation. For instance, most 3D printers require some level of calibration to obtain precise dimensions. Additionally, other factors like build tray temperature can impact the dimensions of a 3D printed part. All types of 3D printers can achieve an accuracy of +0.1 mm but are highly dependent on machine build quality, material properties, and printer setup.
Filaments are used with FDM (fused deposition modeling) printing. Filaments are strings of material, usually plastic, that are melted and extruded onto a build tray to 3D print parts. Some common filaments that can be used in FDM printing are listed and described below:
- PLA: PLA (polylactic acid) is a popular filament used for 3D printing because it is easy to print with, is biodegradable, and is inexpensive. For more information, see our guide on All About PLA 3D Printing Filament.
- ABS: ABS (acrylonitrile butadiene styrene) is another popular filament used for 3D printing due to its cost-effectiveness, strength, light weight, and heat resistance. For more information, see our guide on All About ABS 3D Printing Filament.
- PETG: PETG (polyethylene terephthalate glycol) is a biocompatible, food-safe polyester filament that is commonly used in 3D printing due to its durability, impact resistance, and printability. For more information, see our guide on All About PETG 3D Printing Filament.
3D printing offers numerous benefits in various industries including: medical, aerospace, construction, and fashion. Some of the benefits of using 3D printers are listed below:
- Faster Time to Market: 3D printing helps manufacturers reduce their time to market by hastening the design and verification process.
- Easily Accessible: 3D printing, especially low-cost options like FDM, is easily accessible.
- Creative and Customized Design: 3D printing enables endless personalization and makes it easy to add personal touches requested by customers. Because 3D printing is not limited by the bounds of other manufacturing processes, a variety of shapes and geometry can be created.
- Less Waste: 3D printing produces little waste and only uses the material required to create a part.
- Cool Things to 3D Print: 3D printing enables hobbyists and consumers to print cool things like figurines and decor, as well as personalized tools and equipment. Several 3D printing databases exist from which users can download 3D models and print them on demand.
There are some reasons why 3D printing is the future of manufacturing. This fascinating technology enables physical objects that would be difficult to fabricate using traditional methods to be made with high accuracy and precision. The benefits of the technology have far-reaching implications for consumers, hobbyists, business owners, and entire industries.
The ability to customize and build parts with few limitations fosters innovation, while the ability to use 3D printing for rapid prototyping reduces time to market. This is huge for the healthcare industry, where organs, implants, and prosthetics can be 3D printed and fitted to a patient in a short timeframe. Additionally, 3D printing helps reduce manufacturing waste and helps increase manufacturing efficiency.
Yes and no. Repair costs for 3D printers vary widely depending on the type of 3D printer, machine quality, and the extent of use.
Yes. 3D-printed objects, whether made from thermoplastics or metals, are durable. However, durability is a subjective matter, specific to the application of the 3D printed part. Additionally, durability may differ depending on what material is being printed.
Yes and no. Print speed depends on part complexity and the desired accuracy. 3D printer jobs can last anywhere from less than an hour to a few days. However, compared to other manufacturing methods, 3D printing is much faster since little setup is required and items like jigs, fixtures, cutters, and molds are not needed for fabrication.
Yes, 3D printers do have downtime in between print jobs or during maintenance. Cleaning and maintenance can lead to extensive downtime but is essential to ensuring a long life for the machine.
This article presented ten 3D printing uses, explained what each are, discussed each in detail, and provided examples. To learn more about 3D printing uses, contact a Xometry representative.
Xometry provides a wide range of manufacturing capabilities, including 3D printing and other value-added services for all of your prototyping and production needs. Visit our website to learn more or to request a free, no-obligation quote.
- Spritam® is a trademark of APRECIA PHARMACEUTICALS, LLC
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