The rapid prototyping industry is growing a robust 32% a year, but has not realized the potential first envisioned when it emerged in the 1980s. Complexity and cost of ownership slowed its growth. It became almost cult-like with enthusiasts obsessing on fine details of machine technology. The industry needs to do a better job of reaching out to design engineers. It could be a perfect fit. Many engineers, particularly in the medical device industry design what they need, and then have to make compromises because of manufacturing constraints. The additive fabrication developed originally to make prototypes now has the potential to bust those constraints wide open because no molds are used and complex internal geometries are easily achieved. I’m thinking, for example, of jaws made for surgical instruments. Now, they are often injection molded from powder metal. New additive technology now allows parts such as jaws to be from laser sintering with internal channels of almost any design. Sure there are some drawbacks: less than perfect surface finish out of he machine, weak industry-wide standards, and lack of closed loop machine controls. But this is a marriage waiting to happen.
Artificially created metamaterials are already appearing in niche applications like electronics, communications, and defense, says a new report from Lux Research. How quickly they become mainstream depends on cost-effective manufacturing methods, which will include additive manufacturing.
SpaceX has 3D printed and successfully hot-fired a SuperDraco engine chamber made of Inconel, a high-performance superalloy, using direct metal laser sintering (DMLS). The company's first 3D-printed rocket engine part, a main oxidizer valve body for the Falcon 9 rocket, launched in January and is now qualified on all Falcon 9 flights.
Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and MIT have 3D-printed a new class of metamaterials that are both exceptionally light and have exceptional strength and stiffness. The new metamaterials maintain a nearly constant stiffness per unit of mass density, over three orders of magnitude.
Smart composites that let the material's structural health be monitored automatically and continuously are getting closer to reality. R&D partners in an EU-sponsored project have demonstrated what they say is the first complete, miniaturized, fiber-optic sensor system entirely embedded inside a fiber-reinforced composite.
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