What is 3D Printing? The future of…everything?

3D printer
(Credit: soulfish CC-BY-SA)

What is 3D Printing?

3D printers have been in the IT news a great deal recently, and like many new technological developments, there has been great debate about its advantages and disadvantages. The dream of possessing – in our homes – a machine capable of creating almost anything is still many years off. Nevertheless, 3D printers are becoming cheaper and more sophisticated and are now capable of printing a wide range of objects.

Technology: How 3D Printing Works

3D printers take a CAD (Computer Aided Design) diagram as input and use additive technologies to turn it into a physical model. One approach is stereo-lithography, where a UV light is shone at a vat of liquid resin, tracing the shape of the object to be printed. The resin exposed to the light hardens, and then the vat is lowered slightly so that the UV light can build a new “layer”.

Another method is to use a quick-setting liquid (usually a plastic polymer), which is heated and spread in fine quantities onto the printer’s build surface. This process is repeated many times, slowly building up the final object layer by layer (this is similar to how ink-jet printers work, building up characters with little dots of ink – except that the process is now in three dimensions). The resolution (layer depth) of the most advanced 3D printers can be just100 microns, while the overall build size is limited only by the size of the printer body. Although plastics are often used as the build material, metal can also be used to produce stronger products. Even complex products with multiple material types, such as batteries or solar cells, may be possible in the future.


Applications of 3D Printing

3D printing has numerous applications – both in current manufacturing industries and in whole new areas. Current 3D printing technology is best suited to relatively simple object manufacture – such as machine parts. One music synthesizer company, Teenage Engineering, has already made the 3D design files for the knobs and buttons of their products available online. If a customer needs a replacement part, they can print their own.The falling price of the technology means 3D printers are now more accessible to universities, colleges, and even schools, who can use them to support design and engineering courses in ways previously not possible. Imagine students designing components for their projects using CAD software, and then being able to quickly produce them, test them, and refine them.

The US military has also seen the potential of 3D printing, has already deployed a series of three mobile workshops, equipped with 3D printers as well as more traditional tools, to the frontlines of Afghanistan. The technology allows replacement components for weapons and machines could be manufactured within hours, rather than having to weeks or even months for them to be delivered.

3D Printed jaw boneEven body parts have been created using this technology. In early 2012 doctors used a 3D printer to create a replacement jaw bone for a patient suffering from an acute bone infection. The 3D model was meticulously designed on a computer and was then printed in just two hours. Similar techniques have been used to create replacement “cartilage”, which is often damaged in sports injuries. In both cases the new “parts” were customised for the individual patient, opening up a new era of personalised, patient-specific treatment.

The future of 3D printing holds many more possibilities. The idea of a “universal chemistry lab” that could quickly print any medicine has been touted – and could revolutionise medical care in the developing world, where access to drugs is often limited and expensive.

Less salubrious uses for 3D printers were inevitable of course – perhaps the most notorious example being the Wiki Weapon project to develop a 3D printable gun – the blueprints for which could be freely distributed online. The project was quickly shut down in October 2012 after the printer manufacturer confiscated the group’s printer, but the prospect of freely available and quick to manufacture weapons would clearly be a significant worry for governments, law enforcement, and law-abiding citizens alike.

In Texas, a group of thieves used a 3D printer to build an ATM skimming device which they then used to clone credit cards and steal hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Issues and Concerns

Aside from the ability to create all kinds of weird, wonderful, and illicit objects, the potential to violate intellectual property rights has not gone unnoticed by manufacturers. The potential widespread use of home printing, while still many years away, has some companies fearing the worst. Peter Hanna, writing for Ars Technica, suggested the manufacturing industry may soon be facing its own ‘Napster moment’ – a point in time where, like the music companies and film studios before it, the industry must face the prospect of its products being available online, for free, on a global scale. Need a new lamp for your living room? Download it. Like a particular sculpture but can’t afford it? Perhaps somebody has uploaded a copy already. Want a new case for your iPhone? Get the plans for free online. Feel like playing the latest board game? The pieces can be found for free, if you know where to look…

This “piracy” of physical items could have a huge economic impact on manufacturers. Paramount has already issued case-and-desist letters to users posting unauthorised 3D models of toys related to the movie “Super 8”, and there have already been DMCA take-down notices issued against certain digital designs, alleging copyright infringement. This problem may only get greater as the prices of printers and their consumables fall, and as printer resolutions and quality increase.

3D Printing Today

3D is not a futuristic technology – some web sites have been hosting model files for years, and printers are constantly falling in price. $2199 will buy you MakerBot’s Replicator 2, a state of the art 3D printer capable of producing objects up to 410 cubic inches. Stratasys is another well known manufacturer.

For a more affordable option, the RepRap projects has free and open source software and plans for a variety of 3D printers, with detailed build instructions on their wiki. Most can be built for less than $400. Once you have built the printer, you can even download the machine’s design files
and print yourself another one. Amazon has dozens of books and even 3D printers themselves for sale.

And if you are truly stuck for something to make with your shiny new 3D printer, Thingiverse has thousands of free designs to inspire you – from iPhone docks to pencil pots. It’s like a Wikipedia for objects.

Sources and Further Reading

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