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Can we 3D print our way to a more renewable future?

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colleagues working with a 3D printer - E.ON

It’s always very easy to get overexcited about the ‘next big thing’ in technology.

Sometimes the hype is justified – the Internet, the smartphone, the automobile.

But sometimes, the hype is little more than just that. History is littered with iconic examples of great technology fails (as anyone who still has a Betamax gathering dust in their loft will tell you).

Any debate that 3D printing would be little more than a flash in the pan has been well and truly squashed in recent years. The technology is revolutionising industries all over the world.

Objects created by a 3D printer - E.ON

The exciting bit about 3D printing

In the home, personal 3D printers can allow you to solve some of life’s smaller problems. Lost one of the pieces from a board game? Print a new one. Need a cover for your phone? Rather than go out and buy one, make it. You can even 3D print a miniature model of yourself.

But 3D printing is also helping industries thrive on a much larger scale too. The first houses have been 3D printed, and large and integral parts of your car could soon be too. Who knows, your first flight in a 3D printed plane may not be far away!

And the way that the technology is benefiting healthcare is nothing short of awe-inspiring. We’ve had the world’s first 3D printed titanium jaws, false teeth and replacement hips. It’s a technique used to produce the majority of the world’s hearing aids. And scientists have even developed a process to 3D print medication.

Then you have energy. Can 3D printing transform the energy sector too? You bet.

The clever bit – manufacturing process

A lot comes down to the manufacturing process. Difficult procedures to create renewable energy generators such as solar panels and wind turbines can be simplified dramatically. For instance, scientists can now print flexible solar panels that are much larger than those produced using traditional methods.

This means they can be used in more hard-to-reach places, and may even be able to capture up to 20% more sunlight.

It could also be much cheaper to 3D print solar panels too. Some experts suggest that it could cut production costs in half because it eliminates the waste of costly materials usually required, such as glass or polysilicon.

3D printed productions can also weigh less and are easier to transport, which could be a huge benefit for bringing renewable energy to developing countries and harder to reach areas.

Richard Hague, professor of Innovative Manufacturing at the University of Nottingham, says this could make things really exciting. “The key thing about 3D printing overall is that it enables you to have lower production costs, and to be able to customise that production,” he says. “It makes complicated production much more simple.”

And if you want to get really technical, then researchers have even found ways to 3D print trees that can harvest and store energy from their surroundings, and turn it into electricity that powers devices such as LED light bulbs and mobile phones.

3D printer printing an object, child watching - E.ON

The don’t-get-ahead-of-yourself  bit – the rumours about 3D printing

Sound exciting? Yup. But it all must come with a couple of warnings. And as a leading expert in 3D printing, Hague is used to hearing some of the common misconceptions about the technology.

“The idea that everyone will soon have a 3D printer in their house and start making everything themselves is nonsense,” he says. “There’s still a long way to go.”

“And most of the really exciting things that are completely changing industries require incredibly sophisticated equipment. The idea that there’s one 3D printing device that can solve all the world’s problems is not true.”

“Instead it’s down to major companies and stakeholders to really take advantage of the opportunities that 3D printing provides, developing the right solutions in the right place, at the right time.”

“People have to understand that they need to use 3D printing for products that need 3D printing,” Hague asserts. “It’s not simply a ‘cheap solution’…and it’s not a panacea to replace all manufacturing.”

“But if you see it as a tool in a bigger toolbox, and can maximise the potential that it does offer, then some really big things await.”

As a company committed to investing in renewable energy - and already a world leader in wind and solar power - it's fair to say we're excited about the possibilities that do lie ahead.

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