Layers of Innovation: Navigating the Landscape of 3D Printing in the Modern Era

A brief discussion of 3D printing and why you should be interested.

Emma Menebroker

8/15/20232 min read

3D Printing in the Modern Age

Commonly referred to as ‘additive manufacturing’, 3D printing consists of first designing a product using computer software, such as CAD software, and then sending the blueprint directly to a printer where the corresponding physical object is brought into fruition via a fine filament expelled through a nozzle and bonded to previous layers. This form of production is in opposition to the more familiar process of ‘subtractive manufacturing’, whereby a desired design is created by removing material from a larger whole.

So, what are the benefits of 3D printing?

By conducting additive manufacturing, objects that are small and difficult to manufacture can be done with a high level of accuracy. This technology allows designers to produce solid and jointless pieces that are more structurally sound than their hand-assembled counterparts. 3D printing technology has historically been adopted for rapid prototyping, allowing designers to make physical models of their designs without utilizing costly metals. This production process also allows products to be made locally, anywhere that a printer and desired filament are available, and does not create the waste byproduct present in subtractive manufacturing.

Furthermore, material experimentation has been at the forefront of 3D printing innovation in recent years. Sustainable materials that are revolutionizing the industry include bioplastic polylactic acid, made from natural ingredients including sugarcane and corn, as well as algae filaments and blended bamboo filaments. Recycled PET filament is another transformative material giving plastic bottles a second life, and mushroom mycelium is putting fungi center stage for their amazing building compacity!

Currently, traditional manufacturing is still typically more efficient when creating mass quantities. As a result, some businesses have adopted a hybrid production model, where traditional manufacturing methods are used when demand is high, and they switch to additive manufacturing when demand is lower (Linke 2017). This allows for seasonally optimal production. While this encapsulates a wide variety of businesses, there are companies working to mass produce using 3D printing, including Adidas which currently has shoes with 3D printed soles widely available on the market today. Having the capacity to 3D print on demand allows for products to be produced on the spot, as opposed to stocking them in anticipation of buyers.

3D Printing in action

Many other companies have embraced the future of additive manufacturing, including Boeing which has adopted multiple 3D printed parts into their 787 Dreamliners and hopes to continue to incorporate more (Aerospace America 2018). There are also many medical uses for 3D printing, creating both medical equipment and implants and prostheses used by patients. To make many of these specialized devices a form of 3D printing called bed fusion which melts layers of metal or plastic material together is used (Food and Drug Administration 2017). Other examples include NASA utilizing this process to create rocket and telescope parts as well as installing a 3D printer on the International Space Station, to make the first “machine shop in space” (NASA 2021). Hershey’s has also embraced 3D printing using this technology to create chocolate masterpieces.

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Aerospace America. “Making 3D-Printed parts for Boeing 787s.” Aerospace America, Accessed 14 August 2023.

Food and Drug Administration. “Medical Applications of 3D Printing.” Food and Drug Administration, Accessed 14 August 2023.

Linke, Rebecca. Additive Manufacturing, Explained.” MIT Management Sloan School, Accessed 14 August 2023.

NASA. “International Space Station’s 3D-Printer.” NASA, Accessed 14 August 2023.