3-D Printing’s New Trick

3-D printing, or additive manufacturing, has already been a game changer for manufacturing in some ways. Now it has a new capability that could be the revolutionary new development we’ve been waiting for.

In traditional manufacturing, parts are made and then joined together. They can break apart.

A new approach to 3-D printing creates something more like body parts, which connect bones, muscles, and sinews into a single component even though they are composed of different materials.


Manufacturing often copies biological structures. Some examples:

But this new method of 3-D printing doesn’t emulate a specific animal. Instead, it copies a characteristic of living things. Instead of making individual parts of individual materials, it grows different elements together.

One piece, multiple parts

The special sauce is a net of polymers which can be transformed into materials that end up soft or hard or somewhere in between. A wheel with a tough outer surface and a shock-absorbing inner layer can be printed out as a single piece.

What’s more, the blended parts, if they crack, are self-healing. The net structures reform on their own within about 12 hours, depending on ambient temperature. Some items might require greater heat, and the researchers are working on ways to make that happen. Their research has already found applications involving heat that can change the shapes of the materials.

Svetlana Sukhishvili of Texas A&M University’s Engineering department, one of the lead engineers on the project, is working on the use of light to change the properties of the new polymers.

Future applications

The new structures are currently being studied for military and medical applications. Self-healing helicopter blades is one of the possibilities. Frank Gardea, who also works on the project, suggests that drones which can change their shapes in flight for greater flying efficiency would be another possibility.

Improved prosthetic limbs are another likely product to be made with this new process.

Industrial applications haven’t been tired out yet, but they probably will at some point. In the meantime, if you need service or support for your Rexroth electric industrial drive and motion control systems, we can help. Contact us immediately and we will get you back on track fast.

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