There is a strong possibility that one day we will all look back at these relatively early days of 3D print technology and wonder how we ever lived without a 3D printing service. Although we might smile at some of the less than useful objects and gimmicks produced merely as proof that it could be done, every day another headline proclaims a new, innovative and extremely beneficial way in which 3D printing is changing our lives.
We already have 3D printed cars parts, and technology innovators Local Motors (LM) have produced a functional concept car utilising 85% 3D printed parts. Now with more recent advances, thoughts are finally turning to how 3D technology can be used to change the actual infrastructure of our transportation systems.
One of the innovations that makes the 3D printing of infrastructure a real possibility, is the aptly-named Infinite Build 3D demonstrator – so called because it is still in its proof of concept stage. Unlike your standard 3D printing service, the Infinite Build system, developed by Stratasys, can print products on a vertical plane. This, in essence, will allow larger yet lighter parts to be printed repeatedly with a high level of accuracy and speed. In fact, theoretically, the Infinite Build can print an object of an infinite size, as the end product grows out of the side of the build platform. This means that original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) can produce custom items much more efficiently than is currently possible.
The possibilities this opens up go much further than being able to manufacture large parts or tools. In the future, even bigger parts, such as single pieces used in the building of bridges, could be printed to order. Tunnels, flyovers and even entire road networks could potentially benefit from the 3D treatment, which in turn would significantly reduce the cost of procuring and transporting these from manufacturing plants, which might be located far from the project site.
Environmentally, these developments would also have a positive impact, reducing the amount of waste and byproducts generated in the production process, as well as the air and noise pollution that typifies large manufacturing facilities. Congestion would also be less, as the ability to print the components right there on site would negate the need for large lorries, trailers and containers to be used to move the products from the assembly plant to the works location.
Aside from the automotive industry, other types of transportation infrastructure could also be 3D printed. The shipping and aerospace industries are both notorious for having dangerously inaccessible infrastructure. Being able to print parts at the point of need, rather that finding a way to bring them on site, after they have been manufactured elsewhere, would remove one of the most common project problems in these industries.
Of course, there is a lot more research and development that needs to go into these concepts before they become reality. However, when one considers the potential benefits, alongside the huge leaps forward that 3D printing technology has taken in just a few short years, it is not unrealistic to assume that we will soon see 3D printing completely changing the way we build and maintain our transport infrastructure.