Just imagine, being able to scan an object, load it into your computer, and have a full-colour 3 dimensional copy of that object in your hand a few minutes later.
If you’re thinking Star Trek "replicator", you’re pretty much on the money.
When Gene Roddenberry opened our minds to these futuristic possibilities back in the 1960’s it was science fiction. Today, it’s reality.
If you’re a tech-watcher, you’re probably already aware of the rapid development of 3-D printing technology and the revolutionary role it’s poised to play in the way we work and play …and DIY.
In this 2-part article I’m going to delve into the world of 3-D printing and the potential practical applications in our DIY lives. Today I focus on the background and concept of "printing" in three dimensions in the the context of it’s development for "rapid prototyping" in industrial design.
What’s a 3-D printer?
3-D printers have been in use in the industrial design field since the mid-1980’s. There are several specific processes in use depending on the material being "printed". It’s an additive process that works very similar to an inkjet printer. A molten or powdered material is "printed" in thin layers on a bed that moves down in very small increments after each pass of the print head. Each layer builds upon the previous ones, resulting in a 3 dimensional object when it’s all said and done. Overly simplistic to be sure, but that’s it in a nutshell.
What’s rapid prototyping?
Comedian, Jay Leno, host of the Tonight Show wrote an article for Popular Mechanics "Jay Leno’s 3D Printer Replaces Rusty Old Parts" in 2009 explaining how he used a NextEngine 3D scanner and Dimension 3D printer to quickly make a plastic replica of an obsolete part for one of his many antique cars. After the printed plastic part was test fitted in the engine, it was sent out to make a mold to cast a new metal part.
Sure, Jay’s got about $20,000 invested in his setup, but there’s no doubt that this technology is getting better and cheaper everyday.
Hold onto your hat, we’re going for a ride
The benefits of advancing 3-D printing technology are obvious. But there are also profound implications directly related to our global economy and manufacturing industries that we can’t even begin to fathom. The Economist article – "Print me a Stradivarius – How a new manufacturing technology will change the world" reminds us that technology consistently propels us down unknown paths.
Just as nobody could have predicted the impact of the steam engine in 1750—or the printing press in 1450, or the transistor in 1950—it is impossible to foresee the long-term impact of 3D printing. But the technology is coming, and it is likely to disrupt every field it touches. Companies, regulators and entrepreneurs should start thinking about it now. One thing, at least, seems clear: although 3D printing will create winners and losers in the short term, in the long run it will expand the realm of industry — and imagination.
Here’s a state of the art 3-D printer demo from Zcorp:
And yes, that interlocking gear gizmo was printed as a single unit!
So what’s this mean for DIY?
Here’s one scenario that I’m betting will soon be a reality.
While moving into your new home, the handle on your 2 year-old "Coolvinator" fridge gets broken. Since this is not a common problem, the local dealer would typically have to order a handle from the manufacturer (in China) at an exorbitant cost, mostly due to shipping. Oh, and it will take about three to six weeks to arrive – unless you want to pay even more to ship it by FedEx.
You go the Coolvinator website and select the model and replacement part you need. Since it’s not covered by the warranty, you’re directed through PayPal in order to purchase the object file you require for a few dollars. Once payment is cleared, you download the file and put it on a flash drive or SD card.
On your way to work the next morning, you drop by your local print & copy shop to order your fridge handle. The service rep copies the object file to their computer and adds your order to their daily printing queue.
On your way home from work, you pop into the copy shop to pick up and pay for your freshly printed handle, which cost far less than if it had been shipped halfway around the world. You have it installed on the fridge before supper’s ready.
Am I dreaming? I don’t think so. Oh, and by the way, Tricorders are also within sight.
In part 2 we look at the truly innovative and creative explorations driving home 3-D printing that are happening right now.
Metatron image – Bathsheba Sculpture