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3D printing was invented in 1983 by the US American Chuck Hull. Based on the so-called stereo lithography, it was made possible for the first time to selectively cure liquid plastic by means of laser treatment and therefore to produce complex workpieces. Other processes such as electron beam melting or selective laser melting soon followed and, meanwhile, 3D printers are capable of processing different materials such as metals, polymers, synthetic resins, or ceramics.
The development of these new technologies extended the application possibilities. Prototyping was significantly accelerated and it was now possible to realize advanced designs which cannot be produced, or only at high costs, e.g. by means of standard milling, drilling, molding, or laser processes. Thanks to 3D printing, these objects can now be produced in a single pass.
Taking advantage of new opportunities
The precision of modern 3D printers facilitates the production of delicate components that must conform to maximum safety requirements. For example, the aircraft manufacturer Airbus has set the target on the installation of several printed parts made of different metals in their machines until the end of 2018, with the objective to reduce the weight of the airplanes by up to one ton. The resultant savings, e.g. in kerosene consumption, are enormous especially under long-term aspects, which will have a pleasing effect both on the operators and on the environment.
For example Opel, one of the largest automobile manufacturers in Europe, also relies on 3D printing technology, e.g. for the production
of their new car model Adam Opel employs printed tools for the assembly of certain parts such as the glass roof, or of the logo. The advantages are evident: The tools can be produced within a few hours, can be adapted to suit the area of application and team members and are available for use immediately. Once proven, it became possible to produce the tools in larger batch quantities, which enabled Opel to cut tool manufacturing costs by up to 90 percent.
A new definition of electronics
3D printing does not stop short of electronic components because meanwhile many printers have become capable of producing plastic switches, knobs, plugs, coupling elements, or insulating objects. However, it gets rather tricky when we look at objects that consist of several different materials. Back in 2013, scientists of the Harvard University already used a 3D printer to produce a Li-Ion accumulator of the size of a grain of sand, based on a compound made of a lithium titanate mixture and lithium iron phosphate. The result was a miniature, but fully functional accumulator
It is foreseeable that the 3D print options will open more doors to the world of electronics. Components will become even smaller and more complex and individualization will play an increasingly important role. For example, the shape of accumulators can be optimized to save space, depending on the equipment or area of application. At the end stands the vision of the capability of producing complete electronic devices in a single pass, e.g. cell phones. However, presently this is still a matter of the future.