Imagine printing a 3-D object as easily as a typed document. Lose a button? Print one. Need a new coffee cup? Print one. While the reality of printing any object on demand may lie in the future, the technology necessary to do it has been available for decades. And soil scientists are now taking advantage of its possibilities.
In a paper published online this week in the Soil Science Society of America Journal, a team of researchers headed by Philippe Baveye explored the potential of manufacturing soil science equipment using 3-D printing. They found that the technology, also called “rapid manufacturing” or “stereolithography,” has major benefits over traditional manufacturing methods, and they were able to successfully produce intricate pieces. Also, the ability to easily share the designs used by 3-D printers could allow for better replication of experiments and collaboration among soil scientists.
First developed in the 1980s, the process of 3-D printing begins with a computer-generated model [often a Computer Aided Design (CAD) image] that is “sliced” by a program to create very thin layers of the object. The printer then uses an extruder that lays down a material – frequently a thermal plastic – layer by layer, as defined by the computer program, to create the full 3-D object. This method is currently being used to build a variety of items, such as mobile phones, jewelry, and artificial limbs.
Baveye’s team used the technology to create parts of a permeameter, a device used to measure the hydraulic conductivity of soils. Traditionally, this type of equipment is made using lathes and drills. However, those techniques are painstaking and time-consuming. Also, traditional methods cannot create intricate designs or incorporate certain features such as non-concentric structures. Moreover, once a product is made, researchers are resistant to making changes even if the piece would work better if modified.
Science Brief thanks to EurekAlert.
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