April 2, 2014 4:25 pm

Since the dawn of the industrial area, manufacturers have utilized what is commonly known as “subtractive manufacturing” to produce products. That means in order to make a widget, they would take a lump of material and put it through a process to take away (subtract) parts of it until it looked like a widget. Think of a sculptor staring at a large hunk of stone and thinking, “Somewhere in there is my masterpiece!” and then whittling away to create a statue of a beautiful woman.

Building a Better Widget

There is, however, a new process in town called “Additive Manufacturing.”  Rather than cutting down material to make a widget, throwing the scraps (and money used to buy the material) into the garbage, this new technique creates objects through the successive laying of materials of different shapes atop one another. Instead of taking away materials, you create the object from the ground up, adding one sequential layer on top of the next until you have your finished widget. Objects created additively may be used anywhere throughout the product life cycle, from pre-production to full-scale production.

Why is additive manufacturing so important? Because it has changed the way we make things and revolutionized areas that the original inventors may never have thought of. It has made the expensive more affordable, the imagined real, and shown its power to have life-saving results.

3D Without the Funny Glasses

Never heard of additive manufacturing? You may know it by another name, which is 3D Printing. Originally invented in the 1980s, it was not until 2010 that 3D printers became widely used in and more affordable to the commercial market. This innovative technology is now being used for both prototyping and distributed manufacturing in areas including architecture and construction, automotive and aerospace, dental and medical industries, fashion and jewelry, military, engineering, education, and even biotech, the field of human tissue replacement.

3D Printing is an innovation that packs a lot of punch in terms of problem solving. It is energy efficient as well as environmentally friendly, and because it only uses materials as needed (rather than using materials you don’t need that end up thrown away), it costs less to produce a product.

Building Layers

Here is how additive manufacturing works. A computer program creates a 3D model of an item then separates the image into thin layers. The models could be of a real item that was physically “sliced” to look at the inner workings and fine details, which the program can either duplicate or manipulate for improvement. This results in the creation of well-running products with synchronized parts and best functioning.

Its cost effectiveness makes additive manufacturing perfect for the creation of invention prototypes, which might be otherwise too cost prohibitive to manufacture. Imagine being able to create a model of an invention that prior had only been on paper or in your head.

Rebuilding the Human Face

The most amazing use of additive manufacturing was the recent rebuilding of a young man’s face, more than half of which had been lost in a severe motorcycle accident. Surgeons in Wales, Great Britain, used facial reconstruction surgery and medical-grade titanium implants along with 3D printing to scan and recreate the patient’s face and then print a symmetrical 3D model of his cranium. Once the 3D print had been created, the mold was cut using cutting guides and printed plates to restructure his face. Prior to this technology, the still-newer art of facial reconstruction depended very much on surgeon skill to make educated guesses as to the correct placement of materials. With additive manufacturing, surgeons were able to give this young man his face back. I can’t think of a more noble use of this new technology.

What do you think will be the next up and coming technology used to change the way we make things? Share your thoughts below!

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