MIT researchers created a robotic system that can 3-D print a 50-foot wide, 12-foot high domed structure in 14 hours. NASA is using 3-D printing to develop a new kind of armor-like “space fabric” that could be used to protect astronauts and equipment. Scientific researchers in Belgium have 3-D printed stem cells, which then multiply to create a material that resembles human cartilage. Ford is testing the use of 3-D printing for manufacturing auto parts, which would allow for the creation of customized cars. A student at New Jersey Institute of Technology actually used 3-D printing to make his own plastic dental braces, although we wouldn’t endorse such a project.
3-D printing has been used for about 30 years, mainly to create prototypes and models, but new technology and lower prices have led to virtually endless applications. As a result, demand for workers with 3-D printing skills and expertise is on the rise. Much of the research involving 3-D printing is being conducted at higher education institutions, allowing students to experiment and learn the skills required to capitalize on new 3-D printing opportunities. These developments explain why 3-D printer sales in the education sector are expected to grow from $200 million in 2016 to $500 million in 2019, according to an IDC forecast.
3-D printing is a manufacturing process that involves printing thin layers of a substance to create a solid, three-dimensional object. Using computer-aided design, a digital model of the desired object is created. “Slicing software” is then used to slice the digital model into thin cross-sections, or layers, which are usually about .1 millimeters thick. The design file is sent to the 3-D printer, which builds the object by printing layer on top of layer, using one of many techniques for joining the layers together. For example, a smaller 3-D printer might melt plastic layers together or solidify a photocurable resin, while an industrial model might use lasers to melt metal powder.
The explosion of 3-D printing applications and tools has led to the development of standards that define seven 3-D printing technologies. The most commonly used 3-D printing technique is material extrusion, which produces layers by extruding semi-liquid material. Material extrusion typically mixes thermoplastic with metal or carbon fiber but can incorporate materials such as concrete, clay and edible foods. Other 3-D printing technologies use lasers, ultraviolet light and other sources of heat to join layers together. Powder layers are built by using binders or heat to stick layers together. For a more artistic application, sheets of cut paper, plastic or metal can be colored and fabricated into sculpture form.
From healthcare and aerospace to design and fashion, demand for 3-D printing skills in a variety of industries is increasing. The challenge for both higher education and industry is to develop programs for 3-D printing before a skills gap develops between available jobs and qualified candidates. Although 3-D printing prices have dropped overall, the advanced technologies required to outfit labs in colleges and universities can be cost-prohibitive. Some schools have partnered with businesses that utilize 3-D printing, which allows students to learn in a real-world environment. This also exposes students to the collaboration and critical thinking that are essential to successful 3-D printing.
New applications for 3-D printing continue to emerge on a regular basis. With students seeking to develop workplace-ready skills for growth-oriented careers, colleges and universities would be well-served to evaluate the latest technologies and techniques, and develop or expand 3-D printing program offerings.