This blows my mind!
Imagine dropping your phone and breaking the battery cover or some other small part which at best is is annoying to replace and at worst impossible to find because most vendors just don’t stock the replacement.
Now imagine if all you had to do was; go home, start your PC (or Mac) and print yourself a new battery cover or whatever part you lost. In fact why wait until you lose it. Print yourself a new battery cover because its scratched, you want another colour or just because you can. Science Fiction? Not if you have a 3D printer.
3D printing is a method of converting a virtual 3D model into a physical object. Normally, your home or office printer is two dimensional (2D) because it prints length and width. To become three dimensional we need to print the height of the object. Print the height? Yes. By selectively ‘printing’ successive layers on top of previous layers using a 3D printer we can ‘print’ the height of an object. 3D printing is a category of rapid prototyping technology and a form of additive manufacturing.
There are several types of 3D printing but the one we are discussing uses an inkjet printing system (yes similar to your inkjet paper printer) with powder (plaster, corn starch, resins) as the ‘ink’. Here is a good,short description of the process from a Businessweek article;
…the machine deposits ultra-thin layers of powder onto a surface, one on top of another,
until it produces a 3D model. The powder is held together using a
binding liquid that’s deposited during printing…….
Here are some examples;
- Converse (a subsidiary of Nike) uses a 3D printer to create prototypes of new sneakers. Draw it, print it and love it or back to the drawing board. Read Full Story
- Orthopedic surgeons at Walter Reed Medical Center use 3D models to practice before delicate medical operations. They take a CT scan, print out a model of the part and the surgeon practices to reduce risk. Read Full Story
- FigurePrints and LandPrint (the companies are not related) print out custom 3D models at retail prices. Figure prints does models of characters from the game World of Warcarft (about $100) while LandPrint does models of any place on earth (starts at $25.00)
Although 3D printing has been around since the early ’90s (actually began in 1986, according to Wikipedia) those 3D printers pale in comparison to the newer models. There are now 3D printers which cost under $10,000 and are making 3D printing for small businesses a reality.
In all this what really gets my heart jumping though is an open source project called The RepRap Project. RepRap (short for ‘replicating rapid-prototyper’) is a project to produce an open source 3D printer which can print a copy of itself!! Yes, the idea is if you have a RepRap printer and I think its cool, you can print out a copy of the parts for me and I have my own RepRap.
The goal is to eventually build a robot that can produce individual processors and circuit boards so people can build their own computers
Zack Smith, director of the RepRap Research Foundation.
Currently it can only print out plastic parts and they are quite a long way from full ‘self-replication’ because printing circuit boards requires extra precision but that doesn’t detract from the excitement. The new version ‘Mendel’ will be released soon and it can be printed from the old one (Darwin) or assembled using a purchased material for 350.
There is a serious possible downside to all this. We may have to change our mindset from ‘CanI print a new pair of shoes?’ to ‘How do we recycle all the pairs of shoes that were printed yesterday and thrown out today!!‘ We may become a ‘throwaway society. A rubbish bin that reduces items to their basic components and supplies more ‘powder’ for 3D printers anyone? Hmmmm…….. But that’s a whole different debate on its own.
All the excitement and the wowing I am doing does not stop at building 3D models or custom made toys for kids but I believe 3D printers may present a unique opportunity to our educational system which I will discuss in Part 2 of this article.
Don’t like all the scenarios above, how about a 3D printer for food. Instant Fufu!!