3D printing in Germany is close to the breakthrough
Digital technologies like 3D printing are about to achieve the breakthrough in Germany. This is the result of a representative survey among companies on behalf of the digital association Bitkom. So far, only 5 percent of the German companies use 3D printing. However, 20 percent plan or discuss using it in future. In the production industry, the percentage is even higher – 16 percent already use 3D printing technologies and additional 40 percent plan its usage.
What is 3D printing?
Under the term 3D printing (or additive manufacturing) we understand a variety of technologies that use additive processes. In such a process an object is created by laying down successive layers of material until the object is created. Each of these layers can be seen as a thinly sliced horizontal cross-section of the eventual object. The processes work according to multiple different principles and are only suitable for special materials. What they all have in common is that they build three-dimensional objects while applying thin layers and solidifying them.
What are the advantages of these processes?
Supporters of 3D printing expect cost savings compared to mass production in terms of raw materials, staff, transport and energy. Furthermore, traditional technologies are not able to produce the 3D honeycomb structures, because these are light and solid forms with hollows. Many forms like this could not be produced with drilling or injection molding. In addition, 3D printing can be used very well for producing goods with a certain level of customization.
Who is 3D printing for?
3D printing provides a multitude of possibilities. Nowadays, its usage in the manufacturing industry is as common as personal 3D printing. According to this, the variety of 3D printers is extremely large: the price range reaches from millions of euros for expensive models to a couple of hundred euros for cheaper alternatives.
Is this technology revolutionary?
Actually, it isn’t, because 3D printing has been in use for decades. The techniques have already started to influence our daily life. Hearing aids and dentures are produced by 3D printers as well as gas turbines from Siemens or MTU aircraft engines. A prototype from BMW has about 3,000 printed parts. However, these techniques are seen as an extension and not as a substitution technology for mass production.
Why didn’t we hear about 3D printing much earlier?
The media has started to care about this topic relatively late. The public awareness has only been created in the last years. Several high-circulation newspapers and popular magazines as well as the internet report about 3D printing now. Expired patents are the reason why license fees cease and cheaper alternatives are brought to the market who can be used by individuals as well. Due to this, attention-grabbing news and experiments like „Gun produced by 3D printer“, „3D printer for preparation of meals“ or „High-Heels produced by a 3D printer“ emerge. If you want to know how experiments like this look like on YouTube, click here.
Over time, the extensive 3D printing possibilities in the field of medicine have drawn to attention. Since years, regenerative medicine specialists have tried to reproduce living tissues. They want to use 3D printers with various types of cells in the cartridges. Growth factors and supporting substances are supposed to secure the form of the print. Testing on animals was successful but a long-awaited opportunity of applying it to human medicine is still not possible. Intensive efforts of researches to print whole organs provide hope for 11,000 people in Germany. In the US, there are 119,000 candidates for transplants on the national waiting list.
Other researches have already come closer to their visions while working on customized 3D printed prosthetics. The goal is to provide as many affected people with cheap leg and arm prosthetics as possible. The German cyclist Denise Schindler competed with her 3D printed leg prosthetics in the Paralympics in Rio de Janeiro in September 2016. Due to the participation in a competitive sport, the prosthetics needed to be extremely resilient and light at the same time. Denise won a silver and bronze medal which shows what is possible with 3D printing technology. Especially stories like that bring the topic even more to public awareness.
3D printing is advancing fast, that is clear. However, experts say that the much-discussed potential technical revolution is uncertain. One of the main difficulties is that the engineers have to cope with the new specifications of the 3D printing technologies. There is a huge wealth of experience about traditional technologies that does not exist for the new technology. Especially in industries that give warranties of ten or twenty years, these experiences are a huge advantage. Even though 3D printing can have huge benefits, this advantage should not be underestimated. Generally, it applies that the more complex a product is, the more difficult and riskier it is to 3D print it. That is why the idea of completely 3D printed cars or planes is still a faraway future vision.