3D printing: Using new materials to reach new frontiers

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President and CEO, Tethon 3D

If The Graduate were filmed today, just think how the dialogue would need to change:

Mr. McGuire: I want to say two words to you—just two words.
Benjamin: Yes, sir.
Mr. McGuire: Are you listening?
Benjamin: Yes, I am.
Mr. McGuire: 3D printing.
Benjamin: Exactly how do you mean?
Mr. McGuire: There's a great future in 3D printing. Think about it. Will you think about it?

Yes, Mr. McGuire, we certainly will think about it. Plastics may have once been the bleeding edge of technological innovation, but no longer. Nearly twenty years ago, researchers at the University of Michigan described the use of ultraviolet light (UV)-cured ceramic polymers in stereolithography (SLA). There was certainly a great future in the technology, but at the time, 3D printers were rare—and they were expensive.

Bringing 3D printing close to home

But things are different today. No fewer than a dozen commercially available 3D printers use SLA, digital laser projection (DLP) or continuous liquid interface production (CLIP) technologies—each one requiring a UV light source. These printers range in price from more than $50,000 to less than $3,000, bringing 3D printing technology ever closer to consumers as a feasible household (or industrial) tool.

Indeed, 3D printing has become an entirely new industry, one holding the power to reshape manufacturing, design and medicine—among countless other disciplines. Today, plastic, ceramic, wood and other composite materials can all be 3D-printed, and this expanded palette of materials has in turn greatly expanded the functional—and thus the commercial—properties of fabricated objects. Small wonder, then, that some expect the value of the 3D printing industry to grow to an estimated $13.4 billion in 2018.

Modern fabrication technologies use 3D printing to enable creation of more complex geometries than can be achieved using conventional methods, whether handcrafting or casting. And we’re already seen the effects of 3D printing in the biomedical, electronics and aerospace industries, in which bionic hands, as well as clothes and cars, are all being fabricated. But the change doesn’t stop there.

Aiming for the stars with 3D printing

Scientists and engineers are ever on the hunt for new materials to use in 3D printing. IBM, for example, has developed a family of industrial polymers that are in a class of their own, being resistant to cracking, stronger than bone, self-healing and completely recyclable. Even better, producing these materials is less expensive—and more environmentally friendly—than producing many modern-day plastics is, which makes such polymers a highly desirable option for use in 3D printing.

Other materials also hold great promise, such as Porcelite, a UV-curable resin material developed by my company, Tethon 3D. Porcelite, which can be 3D-printed into 100 percent porcelain objects, is suitable for use in any 3D printer that relies on a UV light source. Photo-cured during fabrication, it produces a solid ceramic composite whose functional and visual properties—its heat tolerance, nonconductivity, wear resistance, corrosion resistance and controlled porosity—are similar to those of ceramics made using conventional methods.

Practically applied, such a substance could change how we create solid oxide fuel cells, process semiconductors, create filters and cast metals. And those possibilities are only a taste. Such a material could also be used to help boost oyster populations—or even print Big Omaha cow figurines. The possibilities are endless, amply demonstrating that when the materials available to us limit what we can make, then as researchers, scientists, entrepreneurs and inventors, we have but a single goal: creating new ways for the makers to make.