We live in a world of tangibility where the ability to grasp on and physically touch or hold something, creates a connection that drives our senses of reality. It sparks creativity and innovation enabling us to push beyond what we conceptualize inside our imaginations. However, turning an idea into a reality has always been very challenging. Those who were fortunate enough to have money and resources at their disposal were no longer forced to set boundaries to their creativity, and they were usually the ones to gain the most fame and popularity from their successes. Although what if it was possible for anyone to have access to an affordable resource that is marketed towards consumers, but still capable of producing Grade-A professional quality at a fraction of the time — or furthermore, what if this resource could create intricate detail with ease using any type of material? The whole idea of mass production and marketing completely changes once all of this is taken into affect.
3D printing, or if you want to call it by its technical name Additive Manufacturing, is the process of creating solid, three-dimensional objects from a digital model or computer aided design. It gets the term additive by referring to the process and use of materials that are laid down on top of each other in successive layers. It is a completely different concept from traditional manufacturing, where typical machining techniques rely on removing materials (subtractive manufacturing) by the process of cutting or drilling. While it might seem like a fairly new technology, 3D printing has been around since the 1980s. At the time it was only commercially available to help assist industries with manufacturing either part of, or full designs. Many industries such as Aerospace and Automotive had already used 3D printing to create durable and lightweight parts for prototyping or production of functional use.
Although now 3D printing has become a big part of the hobbyist and do-it-yourself community. It all ignited when the RepRap (Replicating Rapid Prototyper) open source project became available, and was sold as a kit to consumers so they could assemble the printer themselves. Its large interest is what spawned the creation of other low cost printers, that are both DIY assembly or already fully-assembled. But once you get a hold of one of these printers, do you have to be an engineer or expert with creating 3D models? Not really. Programs like Google SketchUp or Blender are both very popular for their ease of use, yet offer many advanced professional features. However if you are going to get into 3D printing, then why not take the next step and learn everything you need to know about 3D modelling and AutoCAD. The more you know, the greater the possibilities!
So what can you actually print with a 3D printer, and why would you want to use one? Well it’s virtually limitless. Anything that can be created in CAD, can be printed, and it doesn’t matter how simple or complex it might be. Since the printer can use different materials such as metals, plastic, glass, etc. people have the ability to print jewellery, replacement parts for appliances, or create custom parts for prototype designs. There has even been the creation of food with a 3D printer that was recently demonstrated at CES 2014. It’s exciting because all of this creates a level of versatility that has never been previously possible within design. Typically if a specific device broke or parts where needed for a product, they would have to be ordered from the manufacturer and that would entail extra waiting time and labour costs.
Now with do-it-yourself 3D printing, a part can be replicated in a matter of a few hours and put to use much more quickly, thus putting us into what could be considered the third industrial revolution. With that in mind a recently major contribution that 3D printing has brought to sight is its use for creating artificial limbs. The University of Toronto has been working to help change the lives of Ugandan children by creating low cost prosthetics that can be sent to help aid those who are living with an amputation or other congenital illness.
As mentioned there is so much more potential and possibilities for 3D printing. Scientists are hoping that one day it will be possible to use a 3D Printer to replicate human cells and recreate damaged organs. It’s a bit of a scary thought to thinking that we might be able to reproduce living organisms and it’s hard to conceptualize where this technology is eventually going to take us. All that can be said is to check it out for yourself. Check out Makerbot, among some of the demonstration videos on Youtube to see what 3D printing is all about. Maybe in a few years 3D printers will be a common thing in everyone’s home and available to purchase along side your new computer at BestBuy or FutureShop. We will have to see.