3D Printing

Passionate about entrepreneurship and sustainability, SFU Beedie professor Simon Ford is a widely published Senior Research Associate at the University of Cambridge. His work explores the emergence of 3D printing and its impact on the manufacturing landscape.

Watch as Simon explains how 3D printing is changing the world, application by application – from aerospace to car engines and even surgery.

Simon Ford

Professor at SFU Beedie

Innovation and Entrepreneurship


What is 3D printing and why should we be excited about it?

You might have come across 3D printing about five years ago and heard about how it was really going to change the world. But when you started to get your hands on it, you found that it could only really produce simple, plastic trinkets. A lot of people got disappointed by that, but in the background there's been a huge amount of technical development going on with a huge number of industrial applications starting to be found; things like aerospace and motorsport are leading the way in the application of 3D printing.

What can 3D printing do better than traditional processes?

The truth of the matter is that traditional manufacturing only becomes cost effective at economies of scale. If you're using 3D printing, then the first item costs as much as the millionth, so you remove the need to produce hundreds and thousands of different objects. You could also make things that are customized, so each item can be different, because you don't need to create a whole new set of moulds and tools.

There are aerospace companies leading the way in 3D printing. For example, GE has produced a jet engine with 19 fuel nozzles, each produced using 3D printing. As a result, each of those individual fuel nozzles has been improved by using less material and fewer components, reducing the design complexity and improving its durability. Overall, it’s really benefiting how much fuel is being used when that plane is in the air, with estimates of five percent fuel efficiency improvements.

3D printing also lowers the barriers to entrepreneurship. If you're thinking of making your own product startup, 3D printing can simplify the process, making it easier to develop a prototype, and then with a digital file, improve it for production-ready manufacturing. The added benefit for any company is the fact that you can produce on demand. Instead of having huge inventories of stock just waiting to be sent out, you take in the order based on the requirements of your customer and then produce that good, shipping it to them in just a matter of days.

How can 3D printing benefit society and improve life for individuals?

There are huge sustainability benefits of 3D printing. In traditional manufacturing, you're starting off with an existing material and you're trying to shape that in the way that you want. But with 3D printing you're starting off with nothing—only the powder, filament or liquid polymer resin from which the object will be formed. When you're starting off with nothing and only selectively combining materials that you want, you're creating much less waste.

When you also look at the whole lifecycle of products, there's potential with 3D printing to take back the materials that you've used, once consumed. Goods can be taken back and recycled, potentially on a more local basis, and reintroduced into the production cycle again.

Another benefit of 3D printing is personalizing parts for the human body. For example, if you need a hip implant or a knee implant, traditional methods are time-consuming and costly. But now we can use 3D scanning of your body to create a digital model and then, using that model, print out a replacement implant which is going to be produced much more quickly, at much lower cost—and personalised to your own body.

What are some of the more unusual applications for 3D printing?

There's a whole host of interesting 3D-printing applications coming along. At the large scale we can see construction of bridges and of houses. For instance, Abu Dhabi has made commitments towards producing more 3D printed buildings in the next few years.

Elsewhere, at the small scale, a lab at MIT is working to demonstrate that it can us 3D printing to combine multiple vaccinations at the nano scale with delayed release.

3D printing is also ideal for remote locations. Recently the digital file of a wrench was sent up to the International Space Station, where they had a 3D printer installed, and they printed the wrench ondemand to solve the problem that they had.

Which possible future developments for 3D printing excite you the most?

One of the most exciting opportunities that's come up in my lifetime is the fact that we're going to be able to 3D print replacement organs. Using stem cell technology, we'll be able to replicate and reproduce organs for individual people that match and don't have any problems with rejection. We have the potential to create new livers, new hearts, new lungs to keep us going just that little bit longer.

So, while the hype around 3D printing might have died down and you may not think that it’s finding new applications, the truth of it is that its continued development is going on in the background. Industry is creating a whole host of new 3D-printing technologies that are finding new applications.

Stay tuned because soon we're going to be living in a 3D-printed future!

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