August 5, 2016
Any fan of Star Trek is going to be familiar with the fictional technology called “the Replicator.” In effect, the Replicator can produce virtually any item or product in moments. Characters on the collection of shows ask for black coffee, tomato soup, tools, and even oxygen. While we are still a long way away from such a complex machine, we are currently seeing the rise of a primitive version of the technology called 3D printing.
Primitive is a bad word, because there’s nothing primitive about 3D printing. 3D printers, or additive manufacturing, use geometric designs uploaded into the system to produce real-life three dimensional objects. Almost anything you can imagine can be built by a 3D printer. It’s amazing. It’s transformative. It’s mysterious.
Here’s how it works.
The 3D Printing Process
Step 1: Design Your Object
Object design is primarily done through 3D modeling software. This software could range in price from thousands of dollars a year in licensing to open source versions such as Cura. Alternatively, websites such as Thingverse have thousands of designs that others have modeled and uploaded to the website. All you need to do is download these designs and prepare them for printing.
Step 2: Slicing
A 3D printer doesn’t just spurt out a complete object on command. It must create the object in tiny layers from the bottom up, so before printing can begin your modeling software must “slice” the object into compatible layers that the machine can print. Some 3D modeling software has a slicing tool built in, but others may require a third-party slicer to ready the design.
Step 3: Printing
It’s finally time to print. The most common material used in printing is plastic, but there are other options described later in this piece. Attached to the side of the printer is a spool of plastic wire that feeds into a tube leading to a nozzle. That nozzle works a lot like a hot glue gun. It melts the plastic into a liquid and spreads a thin line in a single layer in whatever shape is programmed into the machine.
After the first layer is complete, the resting platform lowers slightly, and the nozzle/arm of the device layers another portion of melted plastic atop its first. That process then repeats across the hundreds of layers necessary to complete the design.
3D Printing Use Cases
- 3D Printed Houses: WinSun Company in China used a huge 3D printer to create 10 houses in a single day using a quick-drying cement.
- 3D Printed Organs: 3D printers are also beginning to be used to create prototype organs. The shining example today is a 3D printed outer ear. Hydrogel forms a kind of scaffolding. Cells which will grow into cartilage are then layered on top, and finally silver nanoparticles are used to create the antenna that will transmit sound to the brain. In the future, this technology could be used to create functional kidneys, livers, and more.
- Shells for Hermit Crabs: In a touching story, a Japanese artist, Aki Inomata, uses 3D printing to create shells for hermit crabs, but these don’t look like the average hermit crab shell. They resemble miniature cityscapes in clear shimmering plastic.
Complaints About 3D Printing
For all its potential and all its capabilities, 3D printing is not quite ready for everyday residential use. The process is still tedious, users experience frequent printer errors, and most people aren’t proficient with 3D modeling software. That doesn’t mean 3D printing is a failure or will never achieve the commercial success we expect. Give it a few generations, and we may never go to a store again. We’ll just build products ourselves in our living rooms.
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