Why The Biggest Benefit Of 3D Printing Is Hidden Under The Surface
How Lattices are Pushing the Boundaries of Design in Numerous Industries
Imagine you’ve been tasked with designing the perfect motorcycle helmet. You’ll need it to be strong, with significant impact protection, but you’ll also need the structure to be lightweight enough for the user to wear it comfortably without straining themselves. And to top it all, you have to stay within budget.
This challenge of compromising between strength, weight, and cost has long been a key driver of innovation within engineering. In recent years, one particular innovation has emerged as an exciting solution, poised to transform manufacturing across many industries: the lattice structure.
Lattice structures are micro-architectures made up of a network of nodes and struts. Products made with lattice structures are incredibly robust, but also extremely lightweight, thanks to their partially hollow interiors. In some cases, the overall part mass can be reduced by as much as 90%. Since they require less material than fully solid structures, lattice structures are naturally resource-efficient and energy-efficient. However, owing to their complex structure and small components, lattices are extremely difficult to create using traditional manufacturing methods. The only way to mass-produce them is through 3D printing.
Lattices occur naturally in the world around us. Crystals owe their strength and damage-resistance to a lattice-based hierarchical structural. Furthermore, the use of different materials to achieve multi-functionality can be observed throughout nature. For example, the bark of a tree is hard and resistant but the material underneath is spongy, providing the tree with thermal insulation and reducing moisture loss. Similarly, an insect’s cuticle provides it with armor protection, while its exoskeleton provides the underlying structural support.
This nature-inspired multi-functional design has wide-reaching implications across a range of industries, from saving millions in the aerospace sector, to improving treatment outcomes in medicine.
Engineering in Formula 1 is geared towards losing as much weight as possible without impeding the power – or safety – of the car. Here 3D printing lattice structures can play a critical role in light weighting the metal in the car. Thanks to their high surface area, lattices can be used as part of heat exchangers and intercooolers, helping to reduce the overall heat of the car. Similarly, the low stiffness and resilience of lattices allow them to dampen vibrations, which is very useful in reducing the amount of energy going into a car’s manufacturing system.
Amputees often come up against the challenge of finding a prosthetic that’s comfortable and lightweight. With an internal lattice structure, prosthetics can be made much closer in weight to human bones, and could also be produced much more cheaply. Lattice structures could also help to reduce the cost of producing surgical instruments through 3D printing.
Furthermore, lattice structures have incredible applications for medical implants, one of the fastest growing areas of 3D printing in the medical industry. Porosity is an important factor in such parts, as this reduces stiffness and improves bone cell growth, and a lattice structure can increase porosity by 80%. We’ve already seen improved treatment outcomes and a reduction of rejection rates in 3D printing spinal, hip, and knee implants.
Every gram of extra weight matters when creating an aircraft. A significant increase in lightweightedness can, therefore, save an aerospace company millions. Lattice-like structures have particularly significant implications in metal engine components or plastic cabin partitions, where they could significantly reduce the weight of the plane without compromising strength.
By perfectly combining strength with lightweightedness, lattice structures have incredible potential to improve performance, cut costs, and reduce environmental impact across a myriad of industries. Through 3D printing, organisations can move beyond the inefficiencies of traditional manufacturing and unlock the huge benefits of multifunctional materials.