The future in 3D
Want to print up some toys for the grandkids? Make some custom sweets for your sweetie, or have your specialist create custom implants for your surgery? 3D printers aren’t just the latest tech toy. As they continue to come down in price and are more widely used, they’ll shape how we work and play.
“3D printers let you go from a concept to a physical object quite quickly,” said robotics engineer Hod Lipson in a presentation at ideaCity 2012. “The technology is going to touch every industry.”
If you’re not familiar with the technology, here’s how a 3D printer works: you start with a 3D schematic or blueprint on the computer when you “send” to your printer (just as you would with a document or image file). Instead of dispensing ink, a 3D printer lays down very fine layers of material. Right now, many models use plastic. The machine takes in a very fine filament of plastic from a spool, melts it and dispenses it to form shapes.
Of course, plastic isn’t the only medium available. There are printers than can work with clay, metal, processed wood and even food, says Lipson. The technology doesn’t just produce models or stationary objects. 3D printers are capable of making items with moving parts. (They’ve even be used to make other 3D printers.)
Need to see it? Here’s a video overview:
The possibilities of 3D printing
They may look like a novel tech toy or the latest gizmo for researchers and tech enthusiasts, but Lipson says that the devices are going to have far-reaching applications. A few examples?
– On-demand fashion. Imagine being able to design and print your own shoes or accessories, or instantly make your own items from a purchased file.
– Toys. Yes, you can print your own Lego, blocks and figurines (long as they don’t violate patents and copyright law, that is). Websites like Thingverse.com already offer free patterns for download.
– Food. We’re still far from the replicators of Star Trek fame, but 3D printers can create custom edibles like cookies with letters inside. (Of course, chocolate may just be the ideal medium.)
– Customized parts for machines or robots. Sometimes researchers need the perfect fit, and 3D printers allow them to quickly and easily build parts and adapt their designs. A 3D printer is a one-size-fits-all machine — no need to develop a variety of machines to create parts and prototypes.
– Custom medical implants. 3D printers can make parts for humans too. Imagine having a bone implant or hearing aid made to fit you perfectly — not to mention more quickly, and perhaps at a lower cost.
In the future, Lipson notes that stem cell technology could go hand in hand with 3D printing too. A patient’s own cells could be used to create biological materials.
– Surgical training tools. Tumours can be especially dangerous to operate on, but surgeons could soon be able to print a 3D mock-up for practice before attempting the real procedure. (Ditto with bones and other training tools.)
– Preserving history. Artefacts and bones can be especially fragile to work with, but 3D printers would be used to create convincing reproductions for study and education.
– Education. Hands-on learning is an effective way to engage students of all ages. What better way to put those design skills to the test than to create a physical object?
It’s easy to see that one of the biggest advantages of 3D is customized and optimized parts, but the benefits don’t stop there. Lipson also notes that 3D printers could cut those “middle man” costs in the supply chain. Consider the following scenario: you purchase a schematic and the materials to print a toy in your own home. That toy no longer needs to be manufactured in a plant somewhere, shipped to a distribution centre, then shipped to a store and sold to you.