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How 3-D Printing Works

The 3-D Printing Revolution
An engine manifold prototype created by PTCAM using 3-D printing
An engine manifold prototype created by PTCAM using 3-D printing

If you do a Web search for 3-D printing, you'll notice that its uses are growing exponentially. One reason for this growth is that manufacturers are increasingly relying on 3-D printing to make prototypes and parts for large industries. For example, the automotive industry has used 3-D printing technology for many years for rapid prototyping of new auto part designs. The picture above shows a manifold prototype created by the Piedmont Triad Center for Advanced Manufacturing (PTCAM).

Another reason 3-D printing is growing is because innovative professionals outside of large industrial manufacturing have found ways to use it in their own fields. For example, Bespoke Prosthetics in San Francisco, CA, is using 3-D printing to create unique prosthetic limb coverings [source: Bespoke]. They're also experimenting with 3-D printing as a way to produce entire limbs that are much cheaper than conventional prosthetics and are even dishwasher-safe [source: Vance]. Similarly, Walter Reed Army Medical Center has used 3-D printing to produce models that surgeons can use as a guide for facial reconstructive surgery [source: King].

Engineers in the aerospace industry are incorporating 3-D printing for some large-scale product improvements. The industry is already using rapid prototyping to help test and improve its designs as well as to show off how well they work [source: Gordon]. Aerospace research company EADS has an even bolder ambition for 3-D printing: to manufacture aircraft parts themselves, including an entire wing for a large airplane. EADS researchers see this as a green technology, believing 3-D printed wings will reduce an airplane's weight and, thus, reduce its fuel usage. This could cut carbon-dioxide emissions and the airline around $3,000 over the course of a year. [source: The Economist]

3-D printing also has some interesting aesthetic applications. Designers and artists are using it in creative ways to produce art, fashion and furniture. Graphic artist Torolf Sauermann has created colorful geometric sculptures using 3-D printing [sources: Sauermann, Jotero GbR]. Freedom of Creation (FOC), a company in the Netherlands, sells several 3-D printed products made from laser-sintered polyamide, including lighting with intricate geometric designs and clothing designs consisting of interlocking plastic rings that resemble chain mail. FOC also has a number of corporate clients using its design and print services, including Philips, Nokia, Nike, Asics and Hyundai [source: FOC].