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How the ‘slow revolution’ of 3D printing will advance in 2019

bioprinting synthetic bone
The potential of generative design aligned with additive manufacturing, bioprinting and the mainstreaming of functional color parts are on the watch list of HP Senior Fellow and Chief Technologist Paul Benning.

Additive manufacturing has made significant, albeit incremental, strides in the last couple of years, and what Materialise CEO Fried Vancraen has called the “slow revolution” will continue apace in 2019. To gauge where the technology will land in the year ahead and take stock of some of the challenges that remain, PlasticsToday spoke with Paul Benning, Senior Fellow and Chief Technologist, 3D Printing, at HP Inc. (Palo Alto, CA). Generative design, bioprinting and functional 3D-printed color parts are on his radar as areas to watch; material properties and seamless integration of 3D printing in the larger manufacturing environment are among the challenges that still need to be addressed.

Paul Benning, Senior Fellow and Chief Technologist, 3D Printing, HP Inc.

Generative design may sound like a buzzword, but don’t be deceived: The possibilities are pretty amazing. An “imperfect analogy” for a first step in the technology, said Benning, is autofill when you’re typing a text message. “Generative design brings significant automation to the design process. It looks ahead at your design intent and suggests ways to fill in your design. These are automation steps we see now,” said Benning.

As the technology is refined, engineers will be able to input the requirements of a part—mechanical, load and attachment points, for example—and a system embedded with machine learning and artificial intelligence will go wild with design variations until it evolves into the most lightweight and efficient design possible, said Benning. 3D printing can create designs and geometries that are not possible with other production techniques, and generative design takes that practice to an even higher level, suggesting alternatives that might not come to the mind of a design engineer. The automation that generative design brings to the process can be extremely helpful to the design engineering community, said Benning.

“People are trained into the injection molding process and metal fabrication—they know where the limits are,” said Benning. Not so with 3D printing, which has almost infinite design possibilities. “You’re not constrained by where you drill holes or the limits of injection molding. The extreme flexibility and the intricacy and complexity of design possibilities in 3D printing make it a more complex design space than we have been used to,” explained Benning. “To take full advantage of that, we will need tools like generative design and more automated environments.”

Bioprinting here and now

Bioprinting has made considerable advances in the past couple of years, but people have gotten carried away at times by the hype, trumpeting printed organs that can be transplanted into patients. That’s the holy grail, said Benning.

While functioning organs are beyond the horizon, we are able today to print “small, viable tissues, collections of cells that communicate with each other.” If you’re trying to figure out the impact of a new drug, “there are levels where you want to do that from basic small molecule interactions up to target molecules for a drug treatment with a biomolecule or protein and then into cellular interactions. That is where we end today at the microscope, and then jump into live animal studies,” said Benning. Small tissues are a whole new world where signaling pathways interact with each other. The richness of that environment gives R&D teams a much better system to study without having to do live animal studies. That is going on today,” said Benning.

The fluid manipulation and drop deposition that is at the core of HP’s Multi Jet Fusion technology is a good fit for life-science applications, added Benning. “At the lab level, we have printed viable cells and there are some interesting places we might land in the long term.” Printing livers or kidneys is not in the immediate future, but “simpler things like cartilage and sections of bladder have been printed and transplanted successfully into animals,” noted Benning. Printing functional organs is a long way from coming to fruition, although some real accomplishments are driving the technology forward, he added. The 3D printing applications that are most relevant today, according to Benning, encompass biocompatible materials for implantable applications, hearing aids and patient-specific devices.

The wonderful world of color

Functional color parts coming into the mainstream is one of the more general 3D-printing advances that we will see in the short term, said Benning. “That’s useful for aesthetics but, more importantly, it enables putting assembly instructions or wear indicators on a part. It’s easy to imagine putting UPC symbols or digital serial numbers on every single part. The ability to track production from raw materials to end of life is a significant advantage in a data-rich world,” said Benning.

He is also keeping an eye on core 3D-printing technologies. “As an industry, we have a pretty impressive set right now—Multi Jet Fusion, selective laser sintering, stereo-lithography and the rise of binder jet additive manufacturing like HP’s Metal Jet,” said Benning. Regarding the latter method, the productivity boost it imparts will drive growth in bringing 3D-printed metal parts to the market, said Benning.

While additive manufacturing is on a solid growth trajectory in the production space, it continues to wrestle with some challenges, including the breadth of compatible materials, the consistency and functionality of finished parts and the integration of the technology into the manufacturing environment writ large.

“We’re doing a good job on cost factors—runs of thousands to tens of thousands of parts, or more, are economically advantaged with Multi Jet Fusion right now,” said Benning. As Industry 4.0 and digital manufacturing take hold, “data systems and automation will make core 3D printing technology a much more productive and valuable part of the manufacturing ecosystem,” he added.

As for materials, it’s true that we are looking at very different quantities—hundreds instead of the tens of thousands available for injection molding, Benning acknowledged. “But how different are these tens of thousands of plastics from each other?” he asks. “Can you get to the same place with a 3D printing material? For example, take a material with an added pigment for injection molding. HP has a color 3D printer coming out that lets you pick the color on the fly. You won’t need to add a different material. A benefit of 3D printing is that you may not need all of those materials to achieve your objective,” said Benning. Nevertheless, “we do have some interesting work ahead of us to bring more materials into the 3D-printing space,” he added.

Image courtesy iaremenko/Adobe Stock.

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