2019 04 01

Unlimited Possibilities of 3D Printing Open Up

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For people not actively interested in cutting-edge technologies it is still hard to grasp that printing of such real-life objects as sneakers, car engines, residential houses or even human body tissues is not science fiction any more. Scientists intensely research and create new 3D printing technologies and present new application opportunities almost daily.

“Global statistics show that most intensely 3D printing is used in vehicle industry (about 30 % of products), also for prototype improvement (16 %) and innovations (11 %), to increase productivity (10 %) and to reduce costs (9 %). Lithuanian researchers contribute to development of such technologies by creating new-generation 3D printers and innovative printing materials,” tells Kęstutis Šetkus, Director of Agency for Science, Innovation and Technology (MITA).

How Printers ‘Layer’ Things

Doc. Dr. Eugenijus Jurkonis, head of Laboratory of 3D Technologies and Printing in Vilnius Gediminas Technical University (VGTU), explains the essence of 3D printing technologies in simple terms: “To make different products, people use certain production technologies. Traditional technologies include such operations as lathing, milling, cutting, carving, etc. 3D printing is an innovative way to manufacture things, enabling conversion of computer model into a real object. It is also known as additive manufacturing, since, in contrast to traditional manufacturing technologies, objects are shaped by adding material layer-upon-layer and not by removing it. So one of advantages of 3D printing is that it only consumes the amount of material, which is necessary for particular product. Another huge advantage of additive manufacturing is that it allows manufacturing objects of most complex geometries.”

According to Ričardas Leščinskas, head of ‘LinkMenų fabrikas’ Prototyping Laboratory in VGTU, 3D printers can be classified as industrial and amateur, they also differ in their principle of operation. “FDM printers create objects by putting layers of plastic filaments. They provide comparatively quick, convenient and cheap printing, but surface of printed objects may need some finishing to make it smoother and finer. Another technology, called stereolithography, works with liquid materials, which are solidified with the help of laser – when touched by laser beam, the material is solidified and thus 3D objects are shaped, layer after layer, in liquid resin. Stereolithographic 3D printing provides accuracy and can be used to produce very organic shapes, and surfaces of printed objects are smoother and of higher quality. This method is more suitable for printing jewelry and other smaller objects. 3D printing devices rapidly improve and get cheaper. A reliable amateur printer can be bought now for only EUR 200-300,” tells R. Leščinskas.

A Faster Amateur Printer Under Development

Leščinskas tells that one of applications of 3D printing is fast production of prototypes. “It can be a small sculpture, an decorative detail or a structural element, such as cogwheel for some gearbox or robot, or even mechanical hand for the robot. It also can be a small model of a building or premise, or maybe a sculpture layout,” explains R. Leščinskas. Currently the engineer designs a new open source FDM printer. “To compare with traditional manufacturing technologies, a shortcoming of 3D printing is slower production. My aim is to design a fast, reliable, stable, cheap and easy to make amateur-level 3D printer, which would be affordable to all the users via open-source platforms,” shares his plan R. Leščinskas.

Printing of Elaborately Shaped Composites

Doc. Marius Rimašauskas from Faculty of Mechanical Engineering and Design of Kaunas University of Technology (KTU) tells that in standard application of 3D printing technology one material is used, but currently numerous researches are carried out to explore possibilities of printing composite structures using a few or even several materials simultaneously. “Composite structures are now manufactured using traditional production technologies, but 3D printing makes it possible to quickly manufacture composite products of very complex configurations, having mechanical properties characteristic to many different materials.” KTU specializes in production of thermoplastics and carbon fiber composites. Such composites, in contrast to conventional ones, which are manufactured using reactoplastics, can be recycled and reused. These technologies are new and intensive research is being carried out in the area, but in near future 3D printing of composite structures can be successfully used in aviation, vehicle industry, orthopedics and other areas of industry,” claims M. Rimašauskas.

Unique Printing Materials Are Produced in Lithuania

‘AmeraLabs’ startup, which started operations in KTU startup incubator ‘Startup Space’, successfully produces material for stereolithographic 3D printing – liquid plastic resins – and distributes it through online channels. The resins are different from analogous materials in the market due to very fast solidification. “One layer of material produced by our nearest competitor sets in 10 seconds, while our resins – in 5 to 6 seconds. Another exclusive feature of our printing material is that it can be printed in layers of approx. 10 micrometers, which allows manufacturing uniquely detailed objects. Furthermore, it is odorless and therefore safer to use. We also have some very strong and flexible materials. About 98 % of ‘AmeraLabs’ production is exported to more than 30 countries all over the world. Fast improvement of technologies and smaller prices of printing equipment allow expecting higher demand in future,” says Andrius Darulis, one of the founders of ‘AmeraLabs’.

Improved Printing of Metal Objects

Senior researcher Dr. Genrik Mordas from Department of Laser Technologies in the Center for Physical Sciences and Technology (FTMC) tells that the FTMC is specialized in production of metal details with the help of laser technologies. “We have an industrial 3D printer, which operates according to principles of laser sintering – metal particles are melted till desired metal object is produced. We perform scientific research using this printer. So far, metal printers can make a single element from one type of powder only. But specialist from the FTMC Department of Laser Technologies are constructing innovative 3D printer, which can print a single element using different materials, thereby immediately producing a detail with elements of various materials, e.g., heat exchanger from stainless steel and copper. This would make printing much faster and cheaper to compare with traditional production technologies,” claims G. Mordas.

It is interesting that the largest vehicle manufacturers of the world are already printing engines, and the first pedestrian bridge was printed using stainless steel last year in Amsterdam.

Living in a Printed House

3D printing technologies are already applied in construction industry. There are several printed concrete buildings, bus stops or bridges. And the startup, which manufactured the first house to receive certification in USA using 3D printing technologies, has announced that a small residential building can be raised for less than USD 4000 and in less than 24 hours!

A couple of years ago, a group of researchers led by Prof. Vitoldas Vaitkevičius from the KTU Faculty of Civil Engineering and Architecture, has created a prototype of construction 3D printer and special concrete mixture for printing of houses. V. Vaitkevičius believes that creation of innovative concrete mixtures for 3D printing of buildings offers the greatest opportunities in the area. “When producing these mixtures, it is important not only to assure low costs and strength of the construction material, but also to accelerate concrete setting process, so that the mixture, rapidly laid in layers by robot, does not compress lower layers that are still unset,” explains V. Vaitkevičius.

While setting of conventional concrete starts within an hour, that of concrete mixtures created by the KTU researchers starts in as little as 10-15 minutes. For production of the mixture it is possible to use various waste of recyclable rocks (granite, dolomite). “I am sure that some Lithuanian business will very soon acquire a construction 3D printer and start innovative construction. The main advantages of 3D printing technologies are higher construction pace, low costs, because amount of necessary workforce is reduced, and elimination of errors due to human factor. Moreover, it is possible to print objects of the most intricate shapes, e.g., round or even snail-shell shaped objects,” explains V. Vaitkevičius.


Printed Objects of Microworld

It is much harder to grasp the possibility of printing extremely minute objects that cannot be seen by human eye. Prof. Dr. Dainius Martuzevičius from KTU Faculty of Chemical Technology told us about unique 3D printing technology being developed in the university – 3D printing of extremely small nano/micro structures. “Conventional FDM printer prints using plastic filament with minimum thickness of 300 micrometers. We have developed and are currently testing a technology, which can print using plastic filament with approximate thickness of 1 micrometer. This way we can obtain nano/micro structures invisible for naked eye and having unique features. The technology can be widely applied in process engineering, biomedicine, textile and other industries. For example, in process engineering 3D printing of nano/micro structures can be used to print various filter materials. By insertion of bioactive medicinal substances into the printing filaments we can also create new generation of drug carriers with this technology,” tells D. Martuzevičius. Technology is under development in ‘Volatile Innovation’ startup founded by the researchers.

When a Human Heart Will Be Made?

One of the most extraordinary things about the 3D printing technology it that it can be used to print tissues and parts of human body. “In case of a defect in certain body part, vessel, bone or joint cartilage, using a 3D printer it is possible to print a small piece of material imitating the necessary tissue, to process it by adding cells or bioactive substances and then to implant it. It is already possible to print and implant bones, such as jaws, and vessels, and the global market offers finished printed products for joint regeneration. But only a very small part of 3D bioprinting opportunities is already used. It is hoped that it will be possible to print complex organs, such as kidney or heart, in future. Nano/micro structure printing technologies will also serve for this noble purpose,” claims Prof. D. Martuzevičius from the KTU. The researcher expects a breakthrough in the area within next 5-10 years.

In the meanwhile, researchers from USA, China and Europe announce they are already able to print ear cartilage and small samples of liver from living cells and claim that fully functional printed organs will be made after 10-20 years.

MITA specialists tell that global market of 3D printing technologies amounted to approx. USD 14 billion last year. It is forecasted that by 2022 it will reach as much as USD 23 billion. The specialists believe that by 2025, the first vehicle will be manufactured using a 3D printer, the first transplantation of 3D-printed liver will be performed and about 5 % of consumer goods will be produced with the help of these technologies.

Open research and development network Open R&D Lithuania’, supervised by the MITA, has gathered together state universities, research institutes, science and technology parks and open access centres all over the country to help Lithuanian researchers developing state-of-the-art technologies to meet with domestic and foreign businesses and to promote their cooperation. The largest network of innovation infrastructure, services and competences in the Baltics provides over 2.5 thousand services in the areas of engineering and IT, biomedicine and biotechnologies, materials science, physical and chemical technology, natural resources and agriculture.

To facilitate successful cooperation between business and science, the MITA has founded Contact Centre of the ‘Open R&D Lithuania’ network. It helps business to find suitable competences in research institutions, to find out where necessary services can be ordered and to arrange individual meetings.

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