Coming Soon: 3D Printing

Three-dimensional printing may be the “next big thing” in the technology sector. President Obama, in his State of the Union address, praised White House efforts to establish manufacturing labs saying 3D printing “has the potential to revolutionize the way we make almost everything.” He promised the launch of three new hubs–though the locations are as of yet undisclosed.

Three-dimensional printing started with clunky plastic, but has now evolved to include a variety other materials–including cartilage for prosthetic ears. Products are first designed by computer aided design (CAD) software which is commonly used by engineers to test-build a variety of devices and mechanical parts before actual manufacturing. Once the design is optimized, it’s sliced into cross-sections–similar to how computer images are split into pixels. Raw material–powder, liquid, or any other form–is loaded into the printer and prepared for deposition, often by heating. The printer lays down material layer-by-layer until the entire 3D structure is completed. Typical layer thickness is in the micrometers, small enough to create relatively smooth edges.

A Kickstarter project by Formlabs recently raised almost $3 million to develop low-cost 3D printers–their original goal was only $100,000. The printer, called Form 1, promises small, at-home printers for enthusiasts to create their own plastic sculptures made from an undisclosed gray liquid. Printed examples included a chess-piece castle, the Eiffel tower, and quarter sized bird cage.

3D molds

Three-dimensional prints from Formlabs come in a variety of shapes and sizes.

Three-dimensional printing is attractive to both enthusiasts and manufactures, although techniques such as injection molding are still more affordable if printing large quantities. As of now, most printing has been done by hobbyists in the form of toy modelsworking clocks, and edible chocolate turtles. As costs for 3D printing decrease, printers and materials will become more widespread. One day we may be printing car replacements parts or children’s toys at home from our own design.

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