Imagine that you’re the owner of a high-end auto repair shop and, when a new client brings in their sports car, the one part that you need is also the one part that you don’t have in stock. Then imagine that, instead of ordering the part and waiting for to come, you simply print a new part with your 3-D laser printer and install it the same day.
That’s not just the promise of 3-D printing, it’s the reality. People in industries all over the world are talking about how the ability to instantly print parts, or even an entire product, is going to effectively change thousands of industries and millions of private lives as well.
In the fields of medicine, architecture, design, auto repair, the arts, sports and practically anything else you can think of, 3-D printers not only print out complex shapes and structures but they can do it quickly and relatively inexpensively. Indeed, there are even plans to build gigantic 3-D printers that will be able to laser cut concrete structures that will then be used to create houses and buildings!
For archaeologists, 3-D printing means that instead of risking priceless and incredibly delicate artifacts, they can simply scan them and print them out in 3-D. This not only protects the actual artifact but allows them to print copies that can be sent to other researchers and museums all over the world. 3-D scanning has actually already been used to print out a full-sized reproduction of King Tut’s mummy as well as to repair The Thinker, one of Rodin’s most famous sculptures.
Right now there are a wide variety of 3-D printers on the market but all of them share one thing in common; they are able to create a three-dimensional object simply by using a laser to build, layer by layer, the object until it’s complete. If you have trouble imagining what this must be like, simply imagine any type of cake that is made with multiple layers. What the baker does is put one layer down and consecutively put others on top until his creation is complete. Laser printers basically do the same thing although, unlike most bakers, they are incredibly precise. (No offense to our friends over at Cake Boss.)
This is the reason that 3-D printing is called ‘additive manufacturing’. For example, when a sculptor is busy chiseling away at a block of granite he (or she) keeps working until enough has been taken away to finish their creation. This is called a ‘subtractive process’ and is similar to when things are cut, milled, machined or drilled. In 3-D printing however there’s nothing actually taken away but instead the laser printer successively adds to the end product, layer by layer.
Adding to all the excitement about 3-D printing is the fact that, even though there are 3-D printers that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, there are a wide range of models that are entering the market for personal, home and DIY use that range between $300-$2000, a price that makes them available to a much larger audience.
One of the biggest roadblocks to home use of 3-D printers was the 3-D modeling that needed to be done before printing could be accomplished. Today however there are a number of programs that are extremely easy to learn and, in some cases, are absolutely free. For example, Google’s Sketch Up is a free design program similar to expensive CAD software that can be used by practically anyone and has become very popular. There’s also a free program called Blender that is prized for its more advanced features.
If you have an idea for something that you’d like to create with a 3-D printer but you don’t yet own your own, service providers like Shapeways and Ponoko have entered the market and, once you upload your digital file to their website, they will deliver a relatively inexpensive 3-D rendition of your creation. In many ways these services are just as easy and convenient as ordering a custom T-shirt from websites like Zazzle and Cafepress. Similar to these T-shirt design websites, you can also use models that have already been created and are available on their site to print out some amazing 3-D products.
The most exciting aspect of 3-D printing is that it’s virtually limitless. From copying already existing products to creating an incredibly wide variety of new ones, the people who are using 3-D printers today are creating art, toys, replacement parts for all types of products and even human skin.
The fact is, when it comes to 3-D printing the sky is not even the limit. Over the next few years, as 3-D printers drop in price and more people find out about this incredible new technology, they’re sure to be seen in as many homes around the globe as laptop computers, tablets, smart phones and regular old inkjet printers are today.