Monday, February 27, 2017
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Printing the Future from Scratch
Jacob Fattal, Publisher

Additive manufacturing or 3D printing has become a major component of every kind of manufacturing enterprise, be it electronics, medical, military, automotive, or aerospace. Starting from meager beginnings as a curiosity and then a way to make engineering prototypes, the technology has blossomed into a major player across all fields.

The techniques have evolved from roots in the electronics industry, and are still heavily invested with computer control and design. UV light is sometimes used to cure a photo-hardening material as it is deposited from the print head; early versions required masks to control the exposure area. 3D printers are controlled digitally, using blueprints loaded from a computer, and the machine can often do its job with little human supervision.

For the electronics industry, additive manufacturing presents a solution for cheap, quick creation of commonly used parts. No longer only the hobbyist box in the garage used for plastic knick-knacks, manufacturers are now able to print materials that range from thermoplastics and rubbers to metal alloys. It was recently reported that two-thirds of manufacturers in the U.S. use additive manufacturing in some way.

The scale of the machines has come to vary widely as well. It is now possible to use microelectronic fabrication processes to print nanoscale-sized objects. Since they're too small to be handled after printing, often they are printed onto a solid substrate, such as a silicon wafer. On the other hand, there are machines being developed to print objects up to 100 ft (30 m) long to be used for the aerospace industry.

Just as no one could have predicted the longterm impact of technologies like the printing press, the steam engine or the transistor, we are just beginning to envision the possibilities of additive manufacturing. Forbes investment experts even believe that additive manufacturing has the possibility to spark a resurgence of American manufacturing, due to the ability of small, individual companies to exploit their creativity without requiring a complex and often costly outsourcing strategy.

This month, U.S.Tech is focused on electronic components and distribution, and many companies in this area now stand to benefit from the rise of additive manufacturing. Cheap prototypes, housings, multi-material shapes, conductive materials — the 3D printing landscape is wide open for exploration and exploitation. What would Gutenberg say if he were alive today?  

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