A brave new world of 3D printing

Around 2006, I had the privilege of visiting the famous MIT media lab. Out of the numerous geek toys I had a chance to play with, one was a modified inkjet printer that sprayed glue on successive layers of powder until a 3D object emerged from the dust, thus a 3D printer. Even though I had never heard of 3D printers, this MIT machine was in reality a layman’s version of the SLS printer invented almost 20 years ago at University of Texas at Austin. It looked pretty neat, but I didn’t give it much more though at the time…

A few days ago, I stumbled on this video of a small 3D printed hand fan. The fan was printed as is, with cranks and all in place, no assembly required. I was stunned and realized it was time to do some research on 3D printing. It didn’t take me long to notice how much farther ahead we already are than I imagined. I now have an unshakable feeling that 3D printers are one of those technologies that are going to usher in a new era on humanity.

In the mid 1980’s, SLS was invented, then in ’87 came SLA, followed by FDM, SLM, EDM and a few others. Those are all different 3D printing technologies that already exist, but we are just at the infancy of 3D printing, so you can only imagine what is yet to come. What do all these technologies do? They print 3D objects out of a computer produced 3D model, usually in STL format. When I previously thought of 3D printing, I imagined small low resolution plastic objects with no movable parts. What we have today is a range of materials from various types of thermoplastics, metal alloys, paper, photopolymer and even ceramic! If that wasn’t enough, these printers have sub-millimeter precision. The high end SLS machines can print with up to 20 micron precision (0.02mm) and objects as big as half a meter on all 3 axes.

Another major development is the fact that accessibility to these 3D printers has improved drastically. FDM printers designed for home use are now available for as little as $400. Most major cities have 3D printing facilities available to the public and services such as Shapeways offer online 3D printing with industrial grade printers and a great selection of materials. All you have to do is send the 3D model of your object and they will ship the printed object to you within 2-3 weeks.

Today, in our everyday lives, 3D printing is practically non-existant. But in the industrial world, 3D printing is already widely used for fast prototyping. Will 3D printing become the de-facto mass manufacturing technology instead of molding and traditional machining? On a day-to-day level, what happens when these printers become cheap, fast, high resolution and available in every house, every office and every small workshop? Will our children be designing their own toys and printing them? Will shopping be replaced by buying 3D models, downloading them and printing them? Will artisans let go of hand crafted objects in exchange for the complexity and precision of printed ones? Will 3D design and modeling become a common skill? I have barely begun to imagine how this could change our world, but here is some more food for thought: The Rep Rap 3D printer’s ultimate goal is to gain the capacity to self-replicate itself! I don’t know about you, but I’m already shopping for my own 3D printer.