3D Printing: More than Just a Curiosity

In 2011, I attended the first Maker Faire Detroit at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan.  Maker Faire bills itself as the largest show and tell in the world.  It’s an event for “makers,” essentially do-it-yourself innovators, to come together and show off their innovations, among other things.  One of the biggest draws at the fair was the 3D printing area.  In the 90°+ of that late July day, hundreds of people filled a stifling tent to get a look at the different models of 3D printers and the things they could create.  To me, it was a glimpse of our future.

Background

To understand 3D printing, it helps to understand how traditional manufacturing works.  Almost anything you own is created by starting with a block of some material, which is then cut to the desired shape.  For example, a wooden chair starts as several pieces of wood.  The legs are shaped on a lathe, much like this:

A wood lathe.

The machine spins the wood and then the craftsman shaves off layers of wood with tools to shape the leg.  So, you start with a bigger piece of material and remove bits of it to create the end product.  This is often called subtractive manufacturing.

3D printing, on the other hand, builds up the desired product one tiny piece at a time.  Rather than starting with a bigger piece of material and removing bits of it, you add material to create the end product.  This is called additive manufacturing.

Types

There are a few different types of 3D printers.  Some are made for working with metal, others are made for industry (mostly to create rapid prototypes for engineers).  But the ones I want to talk about are the “hobbyist” ones, which work mostly with plastics.  They work much like your inkjet printer you have at home.  A head moves around on a manufacturing table, squirts out a little bit of melted plastic, moves a tiny bit, squirts out another little bit of melted plastic, moves another tiny bit, and so on.  This is repeated until the product is complete.  You are limited only by your imagination and the size of your printer.

The most well-known 3D printer company is probably Makerbot, but they are not the only one.  Ultimaker and 3D Systems are two other companies.  There are also open source 3D printer projects, including RepRap and Fab@Home.  Most of these models cost around $1,500 to $2,500, which is a heck of a lot cheaper than the cost a few years ago.

By User:Semenko (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
The Ultimaker 3D printer. The table in the box is the printing surface and the tube on the top is for the plastic material, which comes in a spool.

Uses

There are a whole range of things you can make with a 3D printer.  They range from the mundane, like bracelets to miniature figurines, to parts for products you already own, to new products altogether.  A Japanese company announced not too long ago that it would begin making 3D printing photobooths where the booth would scan your image and then print a miniature figuring from the scan.  The Thingiverse is a database full of designs for 3D printed objects, including camera parts, toys, model planes, microscopes, tools, just about anything else you can imagine.  Another group recently has made headlines by first creating replacement parts for existing rifles and then creating a fully-3D printable handgun.  Controversy aside, it seems that we are merely at the beginning of what we can create with 3D printers on our own desktops.

Potential

I think that 3d printing is poised to dramatically change the world we live in.  It may take a while, but things are already changing.  The 3D printed gun has brought home to a before-now largely ignorant world just what kind of impact 3D printers can have.  And the wave of the future seems to be that everyone will own a 3D printer capable of printing everything from household objects to even food, just as almost every house that has a computer has an inkjet printer.

Right now, outside of some narrow commercial uses, 3D printing remains largely a novelty for hobbyists.  But, as the field expands and the number of people creating unique designs and sharing them on the internet increases, it will move inevitably from a novelty to a necessity.  Imagine a future where you can create at home almost anything you could need.  Need a new cell phone?  Just download the design you want and print it.  Need a replacement part for an appliance?  Download and print it.  Want to upgrade your 3D printer or make another one for a friend?  Download and print it.  We could be looking at the open-sourcing of the manufacturing the way that the internet open-sourced the media and software creation.

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