By Ramsey Stevens, CEO • nano3Dprint
Direct-write 3D printing technology uses a micro-dispenser to precisely deposit nanoscale multi-materials over a substrate and produce complex shapes in layers. The direct-write additive manufacturing method employs materials such as metals, composites, and ceramics and offers several benefits, including reduced build times, minimal waste, and lower production costs. This technology will significantly drive the additive manufacturing market, which Research and Markets predicts will grow to $83.56 billion by 2030.
With the ability to integrate materials seamlessly and directly embed electronics, industries such as healthcare, professional sports, and automotive can expect direct-write 3D printing technology to develop new smaller smart objects.
The “write” prescription for healthcare’s future
The healthcare industry will benefit from using direct-write technology to develop medical devices, wearables, and monitoring systems. With the precise deposition of inks and high-viscosity pastes, direct-write opens new opportunities for improving clinical care.
Integrating embedded sensors into medical treatment equipment, such as casts and braces, allows a patient’s health to be monitored continuously within and outside clinic walls. Embedded sensors can also help with diagnostic testing for patients needing more in-depth monitoring beyond the clinic.
One example is the smart cast’s electronic package, which comprises sensors directly printed on supports, making them easy to embed in the cast structure. Printed circuits and sensors allow batteries and wiring to be intelligently integrated and distributed, eliminating the need for external elements and bulky components. Where necessary, multiple sensors can also be connected to the embedded circuit, allowing for more comprehensive capabilities.
Direct-write technology also enables researchers to place sensors directly on living tissue, such as bone, cartilage, tendons, and skin, to better understand the body’s health status and tissue response to treatment. This approach allows for precise, real-time monitoring of physiological changes and provides valuable information for clinicians to make informed decisions regarding patient care.
Furthermore, 3D-printed sensors can also provide necessary biofeedback to move from developing therapeutic devices to developing theranostic devices. Theranostics is a rapidly emerging field that combines diagnostic and therapeutic functions into a single device, providing personalized medicine solutions.
The on-demand availability of 3D printing electronics can help researchers bring products to market faster. It will make cutting-edge medical developments more readily available to patients and medical personnel. It also opens opportunities for personalized medical equipment, allowing on-demand development for patients requiring specialized devices.
Personalized patient equipment, such as sensors and casts, enables more precise and effective treatment tailored to an individual’s anatomy. Thus, 3D printing innovation in healthcare brings forward cutting-edge technology to further customize treatment plans when a “one-size-fits-all” approach does not adequately address a diagnosis.
Game-changing benefits of direct-write technology in sports
Embedded sensors are increasingly used in sports equipment to monitor critical data, such as athletes’ heart rates or level of impact from a hit. This approach enables vast data collection and helps improve athlete health and equipment safety. As a result, studies focused on these aspects are becoming more prevalent, leading to the widespread adoption of embedded sensors in various sports.
The NFL launched a program to develop mouthguards retrofitted with high-tech sensors to collect kinematic data, such as impact speed, direction, force, location, and severity. Last year, in partnership with the NFL, the NCAA adopted these high-tech mouthguards in multiple football programs.
Today, the NFL and NCAA utilize data from these mouthguards to enhance football players’ health and safety. Four NFL clubs are gathering data to analyze impacts during games and practices, informing the league’s approach to injury reduction. Participating NCAA programs will receive team-specific statistical analysis to advance player health and safety, as the sensor data also provides insights for better concussion protocols.
Other direct-write innovations in sports include 3D-printed basketballs and custom cycling saddles. Known for their orange basketballs, Wilson Sporting Goods recently announced the development of a 3D-printed airless basketball prototype, opening new technological opportunities for integrated data within basketball equipment.
Although still in beta, the basketball was used at a recent NBA All-Star slam dunk contest. The prototype showcased the basketball’s performance specifications and demonstrated that the ball meets NBA regulations for weight, size, and rebound. Wilson’s development comes off the heels of Adidas’ innovative 3D-printed running midsole in basketball shoes. These developments pave the way for embedded sensors to monitor player performance, fall impact, and ball specifications during the game.
Across the pond, German engineers have developed personalized cycling saddles. These patient-specific models use technology to map pressure points and weight distribution, which is then loaded into additive manufacturing interfaces to 3D-print a custom riding saddle. Largely targeted towards professional cyclists, these saddles can be personalized for existing medical conditions, comfort preferences, and performance parameters. Continued innovation paves a path for technology integration on the cycling course to monitor fatigue and other performance data.
These initiatives, alongside many others, will play a crucial role in advancing the development of smaller embedded sensors in sports gear, equipment, and clothing, ultimately benefiting players and their teams.
Driving change in the automotive industry
The automotive industry uses 3D printing technology to develop tools for self-driving and connected cars for custom prototypes. However, direct-write technologies will enable faster design, testing, and deployment of new, smaller parts.
Adopting additively manufactured electronics (AME) will help car manufacturers reduce costs while maintaining quality, as prototypes and components can be developed quickly, enabling faster time-to-market.
Direct-write technology can produce parts with complex geometries and internal structures that are lighter and stronger than those made through traditional manufacturing methods, improving fuel efficiency and vehicle performance. This strength and durability are due to the flexibility and makeup of 3D-printed parts. Some quality filaments have the same characteristics as steel but without the added cost and weight. Thus, lighter prototypes can be produced without jeopardizing durability and safety standards.
Pairing lighter 3D-printed parts without changing the power under the hood can lead to more fuel-efficient and powerful vehicles. Ford Motor Company, NASCAR, F1 Racing, Aston Martin, and others have turned to 3D printing to develop innovative aerodynamics and improve their vehicles’ performance and fuel economy. From 3D-printed driveshafts, embedded sensors in bumpers and tires, and even 3D-printed interiors, the ability to develop lighter parts with improved performance is taking the automotive industry by storm.
Additionally, direct-write technology significantly reduces waste and production costs compared to conventional auto manufacturing, as materials are used only where needed. Reducing waste helps automotive manufacturers provide clean parts beyond reaching emissions standards or innovating hybrid vehicles.
One of the automotive industry’s most significant advantages of 3D printing is its supply chain flexibility. Automotive companies can produce small batches of parts on demand, significantly reducing the need for large inventory stockpiles. This flexibility offers several benefits to manufacturers.
For instance, it helps companies respond quickly to changes in demand, thereby reducing the time to bring new products to market. This is especially critical in the highly competitive automotive industry.
Supply chain flexibility also reduces the risk of obsolescence for slow-moving parts. In traditional manufacturing, slow-moving parts can become obsolete if demand for those parts is insufficient to justify continued production. This leads to significant inventory costs and can burden the manufacturer financially. However, with direct-write technology, manufacturers can produce the required number of parts as needed, eliminating the risk of obsolescence.
Moreover, tooling costs and other fixed expenses associated with traditional manufacturing increase the cost of producing small batches. Direct-write technology significantly reduces tooling costs, making it a cost-effective alternative for small-batch production.
By producing small batches of parts on demand, manufacturers can respond quickly to changes in demand, reduce inventory costs, eliminate the risk of obsolescence, and save on costs associated with traditional manufacturing methods.
Direct-write technology has the potential to enhance efficiency, facilitate research and development, and tackle supply chain challenges. As such, there is expected to be a growing demand for additive manufacturing technologies across various industries beyond healthcare, sports, and automotive.
Ramsey Stevens is CEO of nano3Dprint and founder of Carbon Design Innovations (CDI). He is a researcher and leader in the development and use of carbon nanotubes (CNTs).