Additive manufacturing, better known as 3D printing, is a technology that is rapidly changing the way goods of all varieties are made. Just as impressive as the technology behind 3D printing itself, however, is the rapid advancement that has occurred over the past several years in the range of materials that can be used in 3D printers. Below are just a handful of the many materials that are now used in modern additive manufacturing.
ABS, PLA and Other Plastics
By far the most common use of 3D printing technology is to print plastic parts. Many 3D printers are designed primarily for use with ABS, a rigid and durable plastic that is used to make almost all hard plastic parts. PLA is also a popular choice for 3D printing, though it is far more prone to breaking than ABS. Thin PLA is the material used to make most plastic packaging. Though it is less durable, PLA has the substantial advantage of being an eco-friendly bioplastic.
As amazing as it may seem, it is entirely possible to print metal parts from scratch using additive manufacturing technologies. Unlike plastics, metals are printed by laying down thin layers of metal powder and fusing them with a laser to create a three-dimensional object. Commonly printed metals include stainless steel, gold, silver and even titanium. Aluminum, too, has recently entered the class of metals that can be printed in three dimensions.
Nylon's introduction to the 3D printing world has helped to take the technology beyond the narrow limits of rigid parts and goods. In thin layers, nylon can be easily bent without breaking. Nylon is extremely durable when printed in thicker layers, making it a good material for more demanding uses as well.
From rugged phone cases to car parts, carbon fiber has found its way into almost every industry over the past several years. This extremely light and impact-resistant material has come to be prized by consumers for its durability. Recently, it has also become an unlikely addition to the ever-growing list of 3D-printable materials. Carbon fiber material is suspended in a standard polymer printing filament. When this material is printed, the result is a plastic part that is substantially reinforced by the material properties of its carbon fiber content.
3D Printing In Fashion
Though other manufacturing niches certainly adopted additive manufacturing technology earlier, some apparel brands are beginning to realize the potential 3D printing has to revolutionize their industry. Today, much work is being put into developing new materials that can be used to 3D print clothing. Thanks to these advances, additive manufacturing of textiles is gradually becoming a reality.
Perhaps the most obvious advantage of additive manufacturing for clothing and apparel brands is the almost limitless ability this technology has to customize goods. Indeed, as proven by noted designer Iris Van Herpen in 2015, 3D printing technology can even be used to print clothing directly onto the body of the person wearing it, making for an unbeatable custom fit.
Another advantage additive manufacturing offers the apparel industry is its reduced environmental impact. 3D printers waste almost no material in creating a printed object. Some materials that can be 3D printed are even recyclable or biodegradable, solving the long-standing problem of old clothes piling up by the ton in landfills.
Finally, as in all other industries, 3D printing has the potential to shorten the apparel supply chain. By allowing producers to print their goods from raw materials without requiring multiple parts coming in from various facilities, 3D printing massively compresses the modern supply chain. As home 3D printing technology advances, it is even becoming increasingly possible for end-users to print goods from downloaded digital designs in their own homes, bypassing the traditional supply chain altogether.