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.
A lightweight electric urban concept car designed by several European companies weighs only 992 lb without its battery. It would have weighed 26.7 lb more if its windows were made of glass instead of the specially coated LEXAN polycarbonate resin from SABIC Innovative Plastics.
Skylar Tibbits' team in MIT's Self-Assembly Lab is now 4D printing self-assembling shapes made of programmable carbon composites and custom wood grain. The composites are being used in a sport car airfoil, and the wood grain is beautiful.
The NanoSteel Company has produced high-hardness ferrous metal matrix composite (MMC) parts using a new nanosteel powder in a one-step 3D-printing process. Parts are 99.9% dense, crack-free, and with wear resistance comparable to M2 tool steels.
The company that brought you 3D-printed eyeglasses has launched both an improved clear polymer material for 3D printing optical components and a high-speed, precision, 3D-printing process for making small- and medium-sized batches in a few days.
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