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Early breakthroughs point to 3D advances in healthcare, aviation, retail, food, and space travel
Network World - The 3D printing world is currently in limbo – the technology is developed enough to attract some attention in the real world, but not enough to bring about change on a substantial scale. New stories emerge everyday of 3D printing breakthroughs, be it through research or the development of actual products.
These breakthroughs tend to apply to a handful of markets, most of which have either used 3D printing in practice or have begun preparing for it. These are the five markets that will see the biggest immediate impact from 3D printing, in no particular order.
The healthcare market is already moving ahead quickly with 3D printing. At the Inside 3D Printing conference in New York earlier this month, Dr. Amir Dorafshar, co-director of the Facial Transplantation Program at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Medicine, showed some of the opportunities 3D printing has created for craniofacial surgery. Using 3D-printed materials, Dr. Dorafshar and others across the globe are providing breakthrough procedures for patients who have suffered severe head or facial trauma and infants born with abnormalities of the skull or face.
Earlier procedures for these patients involved removing bone from another part of the body and re-purposing it for areas of the skull or face that needed it. This was both imperfect and risky – bone taken from another part of the body will not fit perfectly in place where it’s needed, and the risks of undergoing such a procedure could put the patient’s life in danger.
In his presentation, Dr. Dorafshar showed how 3D printing enables surgeons to create a unique implant that accommodates each individual patient’s needs. In some cases, 3D printing let to procedures that were previously impossible.
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That’s just one example of 3D printing in healthcare, where breakthroughs in other areas have made national headlines. Earlier this year, a 3D-printed “exoskeleton” helped a woman walk for the first time since she was paralyzed in a skiing accident in 1992. Last year, doctors at the University of Michigan used 3D printing to develop a custom splint to prop open the airway for an Ohio infant, helping him breathe without the assistance of a breathing machine for the first time in his life.
Mass production of healthcare materials leaves a lot of patients with unique needs without help. The ability to create individual solutions quickly and affordably is a breakthrough for healthcare.
Curtis Carson, head of systems integration for the Center of Competence Manufacturing and Engineering at Airbus, presented images of an entirely 3D-printed airplane at the Inside 3D Printing conference. He spoke of the benefits of a 3D-printed plane cautiously, however, as this kind of transformation is still far away in the future.
In the short term, though, aviation is poised to see some significant efficiency and mechanical improvements from the advent of 3D-printed parts.
In terms of mechanics, the aviation industry already has hard evidence. In January, defense contractor BAE Systems announced the first successful test flight of a military aircraft using 3D-printed parts. The UK’s Royal Air Force 3D printed parts for “protective covers for cockpit radios, support struts on the air intake door and protective guards for power take-off shafts,” according to Dezeen Magazine. BAE Systems estimates that 3D printing could save the Royal Air Force more than $2 million in repairs and maintenance over next four years.