It’s the stuff of science fiction – almost like the replicator machines on the hit T.V. show Stargate SG:1. You tell the computer what you want, and it builds it for you instantly. While current 3D printing isn’t quite that advanced just yet, it is capable of printing objects that you design. The trick is that you have to be able to use the modelling software required for successful 3D printing.
What Is 3D Printing?
You’re probably familiar with 2D printing. You insert paper into a paper tray, and then tell the computer to print the screen’s contents. With a few clicks, it’s done. Your printing starts humming away. In a few seconds, you have a printout of your report, graph, or even a photograph.
With 3D printing, you’re actually making objects. The technology involves layering micron-thick sheets of material on top of one another. At each pass, the material is fused to the previous layer. The printer works its way up until an entire 3D model is completed. These layers are almost imperceptible, though you may be able to see them if the layering is thick enough.
Using this process, practically any model can be built. But you’re not just limited to models and prototypes. With a high-end printer, you can build end-stage products that are “street legal” and ready to use. The materials used for layering are usually some sort of plastic, but this depends entirely on the purpose for the 3D printing. Keep that in mind if you want to get involved with the current technology. Whatever you make will probably be made of plastic.
What Can 3D Printing Accomplish?
The printing process can create anything that can be created on a computer screen – that is to say, anything that can be modelled using modelling software. Free programme like Google SketchUp and OpenSCAD are capable of creating an object fit for printing.
However, more professional software, like Solid Works and Autodesk Inventor offer better features – features that come with a hefty price tag of almost £2,000.
The other half of the equation is the hardware. Printers aren’t cheap. They’ll set you back by between £5,800 and £8,000. However, some printers come with print software, which could save you money when you consider the whole package. For example, the ModelMaker, a product from 2Bot, comes with software called 2Bot studio – eliminating your need for the £2,000 modelling software.
All you need after that is the printing material. Thermoplastics are most commonly used, but photopolymers are also used for some applications.
Once you have a design, the sky is the limit. Some examples of projects you could undertake at home include printing model figurines, chocolates, phone cases, replacement parts for your gadgets, cool accessories for your smartphone or other mobile device, cool camera gear, and even wallets or purses. You could even make your own custom Legos.
Current Projects Underway
Some very bright engineers have discovered that 3D technology is pretty useful for creating everyday objects. For example, Andy Hawkins and Chris Turner (two engineers at the Aerospace Innovation Centre in Bristol, UK), recently completed a nylon bike using nothing more than polymers and a 3D printer.
The design of the bike was the hardest part. Both engineers struggled, and failed multiple times, before successfully engineering the ball bearings for it. When it was completed, they were able to ride it around the parking lot.
Another project, which hopes to make it to mainstream, is a street-legal vehicle. Actually, it’s more of a motorcycle than a passenger car. It’s called the Urbee 2. It’s a vehicle that is constructed of plastics, but is as strong as steel thanks to clever reinforcement at critical points in the body’s structure. Composed of just 50 pieces, it weighs less than 600 kgs.
The inventor, Jim Kor, wants to release this into the public roads. His safety standards are high, too. “We’re calling it race car safety,” he said. He wants his Urbee 2 to meet or exceed the standards set for running at Le Mans. The price? The prototype sells for £33,000. Now, that’s practical.
The Future of 3D Printing
The future of 3D printing is pretty bright. From bikes to cars to replacement organs for humans – yes replacement organs.
The future of 3D printing is in medicine – at least part of it anyway. By utilising 3D printers, scientists have already been able to reconstruct ears and use stem cells to reconstruct entire organs. As the technology advances, these printers may be able to make organs “on demand” for patients suffering renal failure or some other disease. Imagine not having to wait for a new liver, kidney, or heart.
Another application of the technology will be in-home printing. While the cost of printers and software is prohibitive for most consumers, there will come a time when you may be able to print off your own set of silverware, a working firearm, an acoustic guitar, a camera lens, and even lights for your home.
It could be a production revolution, where manufacturing becomes decentralised. Governments, and companies, could no longer control what gets produced and sold in the marketplace. They may only control the raw materials.
Imagine being able to make your own customised vehicle, for example. You wouldn’t have to settle for a mass-produced one. If there was a certain feature you wanted, you could incorporate it. Don’t like that there’s no place for your mobile phone? Create a dash that allows you to integrate your phone right into the vehicle’s electronics. You could tap into the car’s onboard computer system, pull up diagnostic information, play your favourite tunes, and map your route using existing GPS technology.
How far off is this future? It’s hard to say, really. Prices for printers need to come down, and the software needs to be more user-friendly. Perhaps in 20 or 30 years, you’ll see something more practical for home use. For now, you’ll have to clear away a section in your basement, fork over some dough, and study up on mechanical engineering.