3D printed forms, shapes, and objects are making huge strides in helping to develop noteworthy products, with unique properties, with less cost, in less time, and in many different industries and applications. As other technology such as advancements in material science progress, 3D printing stands to be even more valuable in its application and the problems it solves.
Titanium, a strong, corrosion-resistant, lightweight, has some drawbacks when it meets human bone and tissue. While it is used to repair cracked bones, fuse spines, and sit in our teeth when we have a root canal, researchers are working on new materials that perform better. At Washington State University, new alloys are being developed for organic implants into the human body which perform well and are not as risky as titanium.
On the university's website article, Amit Bandyopadhyay, a professor in the School of Mechanical and Materials Engineering is leading efforts to develop such alloys that may be used in 3D printing.
“With 3D printing, we can actually go back and start re-designing these alloys with specific purposes, and that is the beauty of it,” Bandyopadhyay said in the article. “We will see in the next decade a variety of new alloys will be designed using 3D printing.
It is not just a platform to make a shape. It is also a platform to create new compositions for specific applications.”
He adds that 3D printing is a disruptive technology, able to print a structure, on-demand, where the chemistry and control of the printing process may be tweaked in real time, and tailor the finished printed form to a specific functionality. Of course, this may be performed at an attractive cost, in less time, and without huge capital investments of a traditional manufacturing footprint. Their research homes in on the use of 3D printing specifically, as a means where new materials may be very specific and customized, and used as feedstock in a 3D printer to meet unique and ambitious goals for human implants.
Data-Driven, Learned Materials Development
Washington State is not the only university focused on this (by a long stretch). Many others are as well.
MIT developed a data-driven process that employs machine learning to optimize 3D printing materials with required characteristics.
Mike Foshey is a mechanical engineer and project manager in the Computational Design and Fabrication Group (CDFG) of the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) at MIT and is researching the use of applying AI, data, and optimization via machine learning to find better products with more precise characteristics. It's as if there are two technology developments going on at the same time: 3D printing is getting bigger and better, and materials the print with are taking on specific characteristics of things like strength and corrosion resistance. Concurrent with their development, great things are on the horizon as material science research and development advances.
In an article on MIT's website, Foshey articulates this effort.
“Materials development is still very much a manual process," he says. "A chemist goes into a lab, mixes ingredients by hand, makes samples, tests them, and comes to a final formulation. But rather than having a chemist who can only do a couple of iterations over a span of days, our system can do hundreds of iterations over the same time span.”
As the article describes it, the developers select ingredients, and specify desired chemical compositions into algorithm. They then define what mechanical properties the developed material must have. The algorithm figures out the composition and calculates the properties and their effect, before they create the new material.
Then they test different materials for actual performance. Then, through machine learning, the algorithm's iterations repeat and learn, and eventually render an optimized, effective formulation for the material.
The New Frontier of Materials
Just these two educational institutions exemplify the potential of new and better materials when we – use science, and engineering, and mathematics, to promote science, engineering, and mathematics. Create ways to create better and more suitable materials, and you’ve created ways for 3D printing to do more and perform better in meeting objectives.
McKinsey, in an article about future tech trends, highlighted the possibiities: "Consider the compressive effects on value chains as manufacturers combine 3-D or 4-D printing with next-generation materials to produce for themselves what suppliers had previously provided and eliminate the need for spare parts."
The road ahead, thanks to science and engineering, poses so many new possibilities as better and more suitable materials are developed for 3D printing.