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When 3D printing experienced a renaissance in the early 2010s, it offered something for everyone: a way for manufacturers to revolutionize prototyping, an opportunity for creative entrepreneurs to breathe life into their ideas, and a chance for hobbyists to tinker with an emerging technology. In the passing years, 3D printing has only become more affordable and accessible, and we’ve only scratched the surface of what it’s capable of. 3D printing is taking over the world, if it hasn’t already. 

What Makes 3D Printing So Special?

3D printers create objects from hundreds, sometimes thousands, of layers of melted material, much like how an inkjet printer creates an image from dots of ink. Most 3D printers work by melting and depositing thermoplastics through a heated nozzle. Others use stereolithography (SLA) and digital light processing (DLP) to expose liquid resin to light to create hardened layers, or binder jetting to fuse layers of powdered plastic, glass, metal or sand.

“If you can imagine it, we can build it.”

One seminal contribution to 3D printing was made by The University of Texas at Austin’s own Joseph Beaman, Sc.D., a professor in the Cockrell School of Engineering. A single machine creating an object from a three-dimensional computer design seemed impossible — at least, until 1986 when Dr. Beaman and his then-graduate-student Carl Deckard invented selective laser sintering (SLS), one of the first forms of 3D printing. SLS machines form objects by lasering paper-thin layers of dust and are used to fabricate parts for everything from airplanes to medical devices.

Traditionally, manufacturers use subtractive processes to cut, drill or grind away excess raw materials. Subtractive manufacturing remains the preferred method for producing batches of larger, less complex goods. But for every pound of goods produced, subtractive manufacturing wastes up to 30 pounds of material. By contrast, 3D printing uses 98% of raw materials, with some processes using up to 50% less energy. As an additive process, 3D printing enables manufacturers to employ rapid prototyping before mass producing products, saving time, money and resources.

In a 2021 survey conducted by Sculpteo, 47% of 3D printer users reported that 3D printing gave them a competitive advantage in their industry. With budget 3D printers available for under $500, and with build quality improving with every new generation of machine, additive manufacturing will only become more appealing to companies of all sizes. 3D printing is poised to take over the world, and engineers with CAD experience will surely benefit.

The 3D-Printing Community to the Rescue

3D printing isn’t just taking over the world; it’s helping us tackle some of our planet’s most pressing issues. Already, innovative minds are finding ways to fabricate food to end world hunger, create organs for people awaiting transplants and build homes to provide affordable housing. The incredible potential of this technology was perhaps no more evident, however, than at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Fabricating PPE for Healthcare Workers

Manufacturing and transportation disruptions created a logistical nightmare during the early months of the pandemic, with hospitals running out of essential medical supplies including face shields and other personal protective equipment (PPE). The 3D-printing community sprang into action, and we’re proud to say that innovators at The University of Texas at Austin were among them.

UT Austin’s Pharmaceutical Engineering and 3D Printing (PharmE3) Lab leveraged its resources to fabricate face shields for Dell Medicine School and other health institutions. “We are so privileged that our research could support frontline health professionals within our UT community and beyond during this pandemic,” said Mohammed Maniruzzaman, Ph.D., project lead and assistant professor in the College of Pharmacy. Not to be outdone, a team at the Cockrell School’s Texas Inventionworks are researching ways to 3D print reusable nylon masks for healthcare workers.

Looking Past the Hype

Chuck Hull, inventor of the first commercial 3D printer, never anticipated this technology would go mainstream — it was simply too expensive. However, as 3D printing becomes increasingly affordable, accessible and efficient, a growing number of users from entrepreneurs to educators are embracing this technology. “The consumer and maker movement has created a lot of awareness about the possibilities that technology makes available to people,” said Hull, “and that has made people look at 3D printing as something they can now do.”

Does 3D printing live up to the hype? Without a doubt. It’s now used in every product development process, turning years of development time into weeks. And feats seemingly pulled from science fiction, such as organ fabrication, are indicative of this technology’s bright future. Although it’s taking longer than anticipated, there will one day be a 3D printer in every home, including yours.

Explore All Aspects of Mechanical Engineering

CAD, the software that gives life to so many 3D-printing projects, is one of the many tools used by mechanical engineers. At UT Austin, engineers can hone their skills in our Product Design Lab, an online course featured in our 100% online Master of Science in Mechanical Engineering program.

Students in our executive mechanical engineering program explore a wide variety of topics, including heat transfer, fluid mechanics and automatic control, in addition to product design. They can also learn under industry experts like Richard Crawford, Ph.D. A recipient of the 1995 Fred Merryfield Design Award for design education and the 2010 Ralph Coates Roe Award for mechanical engineering education, Dr. Crawford is dedicated to helping students obtain the knowledge, skills and experience needed to succeed in this industry.

Become a part of our 100% mechanical engineering program and gain in-depth knowledge of product design and all aspects of mechanical engineering. Apply now to earn the graduate credential you need to fabricate a successful career.


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