Combining IoT connectivity with 3D printing for new applications Part 1

Peter Feuilherade is a UK-based writer
and regular contributor to the IEC publication e-tech.This
article first appeared in e-tech, published by the
International Electrotechnical Commission, Geneva

3D printing, also known as additive manufacturing, is the computer-controlled sequential layering of materials to create threedimensional shapes.Originally developed more than 30 years ago, it is only in recent years that applications of the technology have expanded in fields as diverse as aerospace, medicine and dentistry, construction, the automotive industry and clothing and footwear.

The main 3D printing technologies include Fused Deposition Modelling (FDM: melting of thermoplastic material by heating and then extruding it to create an object layer by layer), Selective Laser Sintering (SLS: using a high power carbon dioxide laser to fuse small particles of metal or plastic powder into 3D objects), Electron Beam Melting (EBM: using a cathode ray as a heat source to melt metal powder in a high vacuum, layer by layer, to create a product) and Stereolithography (SLA: producing 3D models layer by layer by curing a photo-reactive resin with a UV laser), says Peter Feuilherade, a former BBC World Service journalist, and a UK based writer and regular contributor to the International Electrotechnical Commission publication e-tech.

The additive nature of 3D printing helps in reducing wastage of materials and the associated costs. It now has a growing range of uses beyond rapid prototyping. Although 3D printers are still not cost-effective for most high-volume commercial manufacturing, they are faster and easier to use than they were, and can handle multiple materials. The expiry of key patents has allowed many small companies to produce cheap desktop 3D printers aimed at consumers.

3D printers are capable of being connected to the many billions of other smart devices that comprise the Internet of Things (IoT), and controlled remotely.

3D-printing makes it possible to rapidly prototype and build various internet-connected devices more cheaply than using traditional manufacturing methods. And in the future 3Dprinting will be increasingly used to manufacture the electrical and optical sensors, antennas and circuitry used for mobile and industrial IoT applications that make devices “smart and connected”.

In the words of the organizers of the January 2016 3D Printing Electronics Conference in Eindhoven, The Netherlands, “combining functional elements such as electronics (sensors or switches) into a 3Dprinted product could open up new markets and new applications of products”.

A number of IEC TCs (Technical Committees) and SCs (Subcommittees) develop and coordinate International Standards covering the safety aspects of 3D printing and the electric and electronic components and technology used in additive manufacturing equipment.

Research is now under way on the next stage, dubbed “4D printing”, which involves the use of 3D-printed objects and materials able to change shape over time when immersed in liquids or exposed to external energy sources.


In 2015, 90% of 3D printing applications in the automotive industry were for prototyping and only 10% for production. However, the technology is starting to spread, and is used not just for design but also for manufacturing, repair and replacement.

Start-up companies in the US have already produced prototype 3Dprinted cars comprising a mix of carbon fibre and thermo-plastic modular body parts with original equipment manufacturer (OEM) components such as the engine and drive train. In the collision repairs sector, 3D printing could speed up work by allowing the printing on site of many small parts, sometimes for cars that are no longer manufactured.

According to a January 2016 report by the US consultancy Frost & Sullivan, the application scope of 3D printing is currently restricted to the production of extremely low volume parts and production tooling. Despite this, the firm forecasts that the technology will generate $ 4.3 billion in the automotive industry by 2025, and achieve deeper penetration in production and the aftermarket.

“3D printing technology will allow OEMs and suppliers to print at multiple locations, thereby diminishing waiting periods and overall costs. Ultimately, this technology will also enable users to design and print customised parts, in line with each customer’s requirements,” the Frost & Sullivan report predicts.

Out of this world

Aerospace is another sector where 3D printing has made great advances. Since 2015, astronauts aboard the International Space Station have created 3Dprinted replacement parts on demand. In January 2016, Boeing reported the successful maiden flight of its latestgeneration 737 MAX aircraft, powered by the world’s first jet engines to include 3Dprinted fuel nozzles, while another US company successfully tested a 3D-printed hypersonic scramjet engine combustor made by an additive manufacturing process known as Powder Bed Fusion (PBF).

The European consortium Airbus has said it plans to 3Dprint 10% of all aircraft parts in the near future, citing the technology’s production efficiencies and aircraft weight reduction as reasons for its adoption.

IEC TC 17: Switchgear and controlgear, and TC 121: Switchgear and controlgear and their assemblies for low voltage, and their SCs, prepare International Standards on switches and relays. TC 2: Rotating machinery, is responsible for Standards covering the servo and stepper motors used to move extrusion heads or sintering lasers. TC 96: Transformers, reactors, power supply units, and combinations thereof, deals with Standards relating to power supplies.

IEC TC 76: Optical radiation safety and laser equipment, is the leading body on laser standardisation, including the high-power lasers used to manufacture components using metal powders.

The construction industry has adapted 3D printing technologies to create buildings and other structures. Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology are investigating a variety of 3D printing systems for construction, including one which uses swarms of small robots that extrude fast-setting materials to fabricate large structures.

A Chinese company has used large 3D printers spraying a mixture of quick drying cement and recycled raw materials to construct 10 small demonstration ‘houses’ in less than 24 hours, comprising prefabricated sections joined together with steel reinforcing bars. And an Italian research group has created a giant printer 12 metres high that can 3Dprint huts using clay. Its main goal is to provide shelter in desert regions such as North Africa, where it has printed its first structures. The US space agency NASA, meanwhile, is looking at ways in which robotic 3D printers using material from the surfaces of the Moon and Mars could construct 3D-printed buildings and other infrastructure such as landing pads.

The author of this blog is Peter Feuilherade, a former BBC World Service journalist, and a UKbased writer and regular contributor to the International Electrotechnical Commission publication e-tech.

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