How long has 3D printing been around?
3D printing has been around already since the 80’s when the first three-dimensional objects were printed based on digital data. Imagine, it was the time most people had never ever touched a computer or a mobile phone!
What do you consider as the main difference between 3D printing and traditional manufacturing?
In conventional manufacturing processes, material is mostly removed from a block of material, think of carpenters carving wood, or milling and drilling of metal objects. Secondary processes are used, like making a mould as base for a series, and bending or forming of shapes. Smaller parts were maybe welded or screwed together.
3D printing on the other hand is a so-called “additive” technique: parts are built up out of material, layer by layer, from a 3D virtual model. That’s why “additive manufacturing” or “AM” currently is the most used term to refer to the group of 3D printing technologies. The limitations of 3D printing were mainly related to the available materials and its properties. The hype created around 3D printing in the early 2000’s made us believe the sky was the limit, and everything could be printed, and everyone would have his own multifunctional home 3D printer. The industry has a better understanding of the value and the limitations of the technology as gradually more and more stable technologies, combined with a broader material range are becoming available to the market. Real meaningful applications are co-created by technology experts and specific industries to serve the real needs of a market making use of the real benefits offered by 3D printing.
What are some of these meaningful applications of 3D printing?
The first applications of 3D printing were mainly in rapid prototyping, to speed up the product development cycle by having quickly available models or prototypes, both cosmetic as well as functional.
In recent years, the industrial market is also evolving towards applications where end use parts are directly printed and used in machines, or airplanes, the real additive manufacturing. Medical and paramedical applications like Phits surfaced very fast. By combining patient-specific medical scan data with the possibilities of 3D printing, patient specific appliances could be printed that were used in surgery, optimizing the treatment concept and outcome.
Especially in the personalized healthcare, 3D printing has already shown how it can change the world. The hearing aid industry fully shifted from traditional techniques to perfect-fitting 3D printed ear-shells. In medical applications, like orthopedics and dental, the shift is happening right now. And with personalized glasses and insoles, the eyewear and footwear industries are ready to close the leap.
How does 3D printing work exactly, and what are the differences between the technologies?
All 3D printing technologies have in common that they create an object starting from a computer file, in a layer by layer approach. Depending on the technology, the material form that is started from can differ from powder, or liquid to material on wire. Some techniques will just deposit material exactly where needed, other techniques will uses lasers or other light sources to selectively indicate those material particles that need to be part of the model. Although a large variety of smaller techniques or slightly different principles is available in the market, the 3 techniques described above cover majority of the industrial oriented 3D printing market.
Which type of 3D printing is used for the manufacturing of Phits Insoles?
As discussed before, using 3D printing to create personalized insoles allows to differentiate based on the foot dynamics of each individual. Size, shape and strength can be adapted in the design, and anatomic differences can be taken into account, improving functionality and comfort.
Phits insoles are specifically printed with Selective Laser Sintering, in a very fine powder of nylon (Polyamide) material. To develop meaningful applications as the insoles, it is important to combine the needs of the product with the technology and material of choice. The material-technique combination of SLS with PA material allows to create perfectly functional insoles at the right accuracy and detail, but also strength, flexibility, and durability. Printing the special texture you can find on your insole is adding this extra strength without adding too much material, resulting in functional, very light weight insoles.
With laser sintering, it is also possible to build a larger amount of unique insoles at the same time in one print batch, adding to fast and reliable delivery of insoles. For products like Phits, so called “mass customization” products, scalability and speed of service are important aspects. Other technologies also often need a support structure during building, which needs to be removed afterwards. For laser sintering, once out of the powder, and blasting the remaining powder dust away, the insole bases are immediately ready for final finishing.
How do you see the future of 3D printing? More mass customization products like Phits?
3D printing can be a real game changer in many applications. Too often, when companies start to look into 3D printing, they choose something easy to start with, but then the added value of 3D printing is less visible and less tangible. I truly believe that co-creation between the industry and the technology experts like we have at Materialise can pinpoint the right applications where 3D printing can really add value.
Specifically in the mass customization, as we already mentioned, the full adoption of the hearing aid industry towards 3D printing. Also in orthopedic and other medical applications, the value of 3D printing is becoming more obvious. And certainly in the wearables industry, with footwear and eyewear as ambassadors that have already embraced the technology, we will see a huge revolution in the next coming years.