The Ins and Outs of 3D Printing

Printers have been with us for a while. 3D printers, however, are an old technology that most people are just now hearing about.

3D printers have uses that range from creating medical prosthetics and dental implants to producing amazing confections that could never be done by hand. A 3D printer uses thin slices or extruded fibers of material to create objects.

Materials used include plastics, ceramics, metals, dough, frosting… For the last 20 years, these techniques have been used in industry, but now the price of the technology has come down to the point where regular people can have a 3D printer in their home.

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Home 3D printers are still fairly limited, however. 

This is not some kind of magic replicator that can create literally anything (although there are concerns about them being used to manufacture guns). Getting them is not easy – in many cases you have to order a kit and then put it together yourself. They are also hard to use, meaning that at the moment they tend to be owned by serious hobbyists with a strong interest in the technology.

However, one company is working on making a 3D printer available for less than $500 that prints only plastic and is designed to be usable by anyone.

So, what can you do with home 3D printers, sometimes called “rapid prototyping” or “additive manufacturing” devices? In most cases, you can create 3D objects using plastic.

This plastic is melted and extruded through syringes. Companies sell the plastic printing material in much the same way as you buy ink – the plastic is usually ABS (the stuff Lego is made out of) or biodegradable PLA. ABS requires a heated platform and thus a larger and more expensive printer. It’s stored on spools, looking rather like plastic thread.

Various cool things can be done, although few have a practical purpose. Some people, for example, have used the computer game Minecraft in conjunction with a 3D printer to produce cool model buildings and landscapes. Others have used 3D printers to make replacement parts for old Airfix kits. Hollywood is now using the technology  to make exact copies of objects – with the express purpose of blowing the replica up (The old Aston-Martin trashed in Skyfall was a 3D printed copy of the original car).

As of right now, “printing” food at home is not as easy. You can, however, get a 3D chocolate printer. For this one you make your own “material” by melting down chocolate and filling a syringe with it. NASA is looking into a 3D food printer to increase the variety of food available to astronauts on the International Space Station. Their first project: pizza. One day, you might have a 3D food printer connected to the internet, allowing people to “email” each other food in the form of digital recipes. Think Mike Teavee and food transportation from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. This really gives a whole different approach to ink technologies.

3D printing has attracted some negative attention. 3D printing of a gun is possible (although it’s neither high quality nor durable). Intellectual property lawyers and the companies that hire them have already expressed a very real worry about it being used to violate their copyright.

As of yet, 3D printing can’t create multi-material designs (although it can make things that look that way). 3D printed parts tend not to be as strong as traditional parts – yet – so printing parts for an old car based off of the user manual may not be happening any time soon. Right now printing “spools” or “cartridges” are very expensive. That may change – one company has developed a device that can actually turn certain household waste plastics into 3D printer materials, allowing the potential of recycling those old shopping bags into something interesting.

The major limitation of 3D printing is that you have to have a design. In the 3D printing community designs are traded around all the time, but you do still need to have the CAD design for the item you need. If you are good at that kind of thing you might be able to do it yourself. Scanning and duplicating an object is currently very difficult, as 3D scanning technology is lagging behind the printers themselves and is not yet really available at the consumer level. Downloading 3D files from the internet carries the same risks as downloading anything else – there’s no guarantee they will work and there’s the possibility of picking up something nasty on the way.

3D printing is also slow. Expensive resin and powder-based printers will probably never be inexpensive for home use, especially the latter – which are known to explode. What the technology does do is allow anyone with a bit of money and some design skill to create prototypes or custom items such as dolls of themselves or a friend or unique toys for their children.

It will revolutionize certain parts of medicine – dentists are already using 3D printers to create implants identical to the patient’s original teeth and research is being done to use them to make more accurately designed replacement joints.

We don’t have and won’t have Star Trek replicators any time soon, but home 3D printing is with us and, for all of its limitations will be, at least, a cool toy to play with.

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