Pull into the auto repair shop with a smashed bumper, and there’s no wait while they order a replacement. Instead, the technician downloads specifications from the manufacturer’s database. You both watch as a laser beam probing a container of liquid plastic material almost magically builds a new bumper inch by inch.
The scenario may sound like science fiction, but advances in polymer materials are moving the technology for 3-D printing” of prosthetic limbs, hearing aids, designer furniture, surgical tools and other products out of the designer’s studio and into the marketplace. That’s the topic of an article in the current edition of Chemical & Engineering News, ACS’ weekly news magazine.
In the article, Alexander H. Tullo, C&EN senior editor, explains that the technology — termed stereolithography, laser sintering, rapid prototyping, and additive manufacturing — has been in limited use for decades to produce models of new products and for other design-shop applications. With polymer manufacturers developing new raw materials for the process, this so-called “additive manufacturing” technology is now moving into a new phase — making actual products. The market has been expanding at an average annual rate of 26 percent, and exceeded $1 billion in 2009.