The What’s Up with Science? blog series offers a deep dive into science, technology, and innovation topics on the minds of the public. The series matches technical explanations with relatable analogies to explain opportunities and answer the ultimate question: Why should we care?
If you’re like me, then you consider the Super Bowl a national holiday in the United States. There’s truly something for every viewer: the competition and athleticism of the game, the wow-factor of the halftime show, the entertainment of the commercials, and the technology of…the helmets? Since 2018, professional football players have been testing new helmets meant to better protect their heads from collisions and prevent traumatic brain injuries. The critical hit-diffusing components of these helmets are manufactured using 3D printing.
It may surprise you, but 3D printing technology has existed for some time, though it hasn’t always been used to create next-generation sports gear. Traditional 3D printing—also known as additive manufacturing—creates a three-dimensional product one thin layer at a time, like how stacking individual pieces of paper results in a dense book.
The process starts with a digital model, or a computer graphic that captures the shape and dimensions of the desired object. Software is used to virtually “slice” the model into thin cross-sections, and then a 3D printer builds the object by recreating those cross-sections layer by layer. If you’re wondering whether this printer has ink, it does—just not the kind you’d find in your home office. In the case of a 3D printer, the “ink” is whatever material the printed product will be made of, like plastic.
If this sounds complicated, look no further than the early-2000s extreme baking show Ace of Cakes for an analogy. What starts as a 2D sketch of a complex cake, probably shaped like a dragon or giant hamburger, turns into a 3D masterpiece when the bakers assemble the cake layer by layer. The idea behind 3D printing is similar, except the layers exist on a much smaller—and less edible—scale.
As the field continues to grow, innovators are developing new 3D printing techniques. For example, combining additive and subtractive manufacturing processes—the latter of which involves carving a product out of a block of material—could be useful for printing metal parts. Other products can now be “grown” from a puddle of liquid, like how the Tar Monster forms in Scooby Doo. These and other new developments increase printing speed, improve our ability to print complex shapes, and allow for a broader selection of materials that can be used as ink.
That last improvement is particularly important, because the more ink options we have, the better. Just think of the differences between metal and plastic; different materials have wildly different properties, and more properties allow for more product applications. Today, 3D printing isn’t just being used to create impact-absorbing football helmets. Elastic running shoe soles, durable car parts, comfortable dentures, and safe medical devices are all produced using 3D printing. The technology is even being kicked into high-gear to create critical medical equipment during the current COVID-19 pandemic. It’s no wonder that 3D printing is a component of the U.S. Government’s strategy for continued leadership in advanced manufacturing processes.
This 3D printing technology, and all the techniques that come with it, could completely change the way we think about manufacturing, making it increasingly localized. Since the only requirements are a digital model, printer, and “ink,” both specialized and everyday products could eventually be printed in the exact locations where they’re needed. That means less shipping, less storage, and less waste. Instead of accumulating surplus products because the next shipment won’t arrive for a while, manufacturers could print the exact quantity of a product they or their customers need on-site, including in places like outer space that are difficult to reach via traditional product distribution mechanisms. Economic and environmental benefits could follow.
The growth of 3D printing could ultimately lead to changes in various supply chains while inspiring new mechanisms for education and innovation. Companies may operate differently around the world, manufacturing opportunities might arise in new locations, and various products could become available to people who never had them before. And whether those products are medical devices or football helmets, they’re poised to change the game. Which applications—or implications—of 3D printing technology do you find most impactful?
About the Author: Aubrey R. Paris, Ph.D., is a Science and Technology Policy Adviser in the Office of the Science and Technology Adviser to the U.S. Secretary of State (STAS). She received her Ph.D. in Chemistry and Materials Science from Princeton University and B.S. in Chemistry and Biology from Ursinus College.