How 3D Printing Can Save the World…and Maybe Your Life

| Blake Teipel

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3D printing is an enabling technology. It empowers manufacturers to make parts that are lighter, cheaper, and stronger. Advances in additive manufacturing (AM) are making things more repeatable, more ergonomic, more possible. Essentium is a trusted partner of the U.S. Department of Defense, and I have seen firsthand how shrinking the half-life of innovation using technologies like AM is not only helping transform the military but spilling over into civilian life as well.

Take drones, for example. Initially conceived for remote military reconnaissance and mapping applications, drones were quickly adopted for firefighting, search and rescue, overhead property surveillance, damage assessment purposes, etc. Now they are beginning to take on consumer product delivery services. Still a novelty, in just a few short years I predict they’ll be so ubiquitous you won’t pay them any mind. As the technology matures and drones get bigger and stronger, we will also see the development of life-saving applications such as the autonomous delivery of urgently needed medicines, organs, and medical equipment. Someday there could be ambulance drones that can fly a patient from the site of a medical emergency directly to the hospital at a fraction of the time and cost of a ground ambulance or helicopter transport.

The only way any of this happens is through the support of another enabling technology, the 5G wireless network. Only a true 5G network can deliver the ultra-low latency necessary for the safe navigation of an autonomous drone flying from point to point, whether carrying pizza or people. The challenge with 5G, however, is that the signals do not travel very far and have a hard time penetrating glass, walls, and solid objects. A lot of antennae and repeaters will be required to overcome these limitations, and I mean A LOT. We’re going to have to install 5G antennae on traffic lights and stop signs at every street corner. We’re going to need them on rooftops and inside every floor of every apartment and office building from coast to coast.

What most people do not realize is that every street corner and rooftop architecture is unique, hence the seemingly slow roll out of true 5G service. Every antenna must be properly positioned with regard to any obstacles blocking line of sight connectivity to the surrounding ones. They will need to be made in different sizes, heights, and shapes and will need to support multiple methods of installation. What is needed here is mass customization, the ability to create multiple versions of similar parts that work together seamlessly on a single infrastructure.

AM is vital to bringing about these advances. For advances such as the flying ambulance, it is an invaluable tool to create prototypes of drone components and quickly iterate designs at low cost. A growing catalog of high-performance filaments will allow engineers to 3D print end-use and replacement parts such as propeller blades with the equivalent strength of steel for lightweighting and fuel efficiency purposes. For the 5G network, AM provides the flexibility and agility needed to design and produce mass quantities of customized antennae and mounting parts for speedy installation in myriad environments to help roll out next-generation communication services.

How can additive manufacturing help save the world, and maybe even your life? It enables the mass customization of antennae in all the shapes and sizes needed to enable reliable end-to-end 5G communications. Which will enable autonomous ambulance drones to fly flawlessly. Which are enabled by the use of lightweight 3D printed materials. The culmination of which enables speedy drone transport to the hospital, rather than waiting for a wheeled ambulance stuck in traffic to arrive. So, if you don’t think 3D printing has an impact on your world, think again. Someday it may save your life.

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