Many universities, companies and governments around the world are working hard to unleash the potential of 3D printing.
The most common 3D printing technology is called Fused Deposition Modelling (FDM). Just as a baker squeezes out layer after layer of icing to decorate a cake, so a 3D printer squeezes out plastic to build an item. With enough layers of plastic, you can use this technology to make a cup, a car, a human statue, or even a complicated building model. Whatever you design, 3D printers can make it a reality.
3D printing was developed in the late 1980s, but it has taken many years for it to become popular because the technology was patented, so no one could copy it. But in 2009, the FDM patent expired, and companies were allowed to improve or produce their own FDM printers. Soon, many more 3D-printing patents will have expired, which will certainly lead to a boom in 3D printing.
User-friendly 3D Computer-aided Design (CAD) software would also make 3D printing more popular. Designing a 3D model is not an easy task, especially for people without knowledge of CAD. If a designer can't work the software, they can't create the 3D versions of the shapes they design.
There are many different 3D-printing technologies, each with its strengths and weaknesses. Plaster-based printing, for example, can build full-colour models, but the outcomes are not tough enough to last. The cost of a printer also varies from thousands to millions, with a reliable one at the more expensive end of the scale.
You can use plastic or metal as a raw material to manufacture 3D products, but 3D printing is also showing its value in biomedical engineering. Here, scientists can use living cells as raw materials to make a tailor-made organ.
If such experimental technology has the chance to mature, many patients who are waiting for organ transplants will benefit.
City University of Hong Kong has different types of 3D printers available. Design students use them for creative artwork, and engineering students use them to make detailed mechanical parts, such as robotic arms.
In addition, 3D printing is making research easier, and more ideas possible. For example, an architecture student can use a 3D printer to build a twisted tower model that would be difficult to make with traditional moulding methods. This could lead to more innovative designs and interesting creations.
By supporting students with the latest technology, we can achieve far more than before.