Imagine buying a shelving unit to organize a few books. You grab the directions, your Phillip’s screwdriver, and embark on the assembly of your new shelves. Of course, when you open the plastic sealed bag of screws you discover you’re missing one, making you one screw short on your project. After trying every screw in the toolbox, you run upstairs to your desk, design a perfect replica on your computer, send it to your 3D printer, and instantly have a perfect, physical replacement of your lost screw. Ah…3D printing!
Yes, it’s real. Here’s how it works…
3D printing, or additive manufacturing, is the process of creating a physical model from substrate material using a 3D printer. Through specific computer software, you can create a model of any tangible object and send it to a 3D printer. Inside what looks like an open microwave, a laser or extruder whirs along an X, Y and Z axis laying down thin layers of plastic to create a model of the object generated by the software. This process helps conserve resources – there are no scrap leftovers and the unused material can go towards the next project.
Kyle Korn, a junior Mechanical Engineering major at Ohio State University, knows the ins and outs of 3D printing as he works with this technology in the classroom and at home with his personal 3D printer.
“It probably takes about fifteen minutes to print a 4×2 Lego brick,” Kyle tells MiLLENNiAL. Depending on the size and complexity of the object, the time to print a model varies. Korn also explains that the largest an object can be is no bigger than the volume of the dome plate. The dimensions of a desktop 3D printer are comparable to the size of a cubical microwave making it compact enough for an office space. However, there are industrial sized 3D printers that are able to print larger objects.
Plastic is the new paper
So, what can we print using this budding technology? Kyle explains that for consumers, 3D printers will print useful household items. One of the trends we will see is the replacement of broken parts and creating custom made objects. This idea of personal manufacturing is progressive and Kyle has experienced it first hand.
He has printed numerous household items including: a flexible chip clip, an IKEA chair wheel, a stretchy bracelet, an ocarina, organizational compartments for his desk, coasters, dishes, and a guitar pick. But what he is most proud of is his desktop music stand. An avid guitar player, Kyle custom designed his desktop music stand to hold his music while he practices chords in his Columbus apartment.
What can 3D printing do on a large scale and where does its future lie?
The main application of 3D printing is in science, technology, and industry. Rapid prototyping is the process of quickly creating a scale model of a physical object by a 3D printer. Instead of sending the prototype design off to a manufacturer to produce the model, companies are able to print the model quickly and on site saving time in the design process of a product.
In the medical field, 3D printing is becoming popular in a few areas. It is being used to create fully functional and assembled prototypes of limbs for amputees. These limbs are printed to scale and encompass complex details such as moving parts. A firm based in San Diego called Organovo, is working to produce organic tissue and organs grown from cell samples and generated by a 3D printer. These printed tissues and organs can then be used for pharmaceutical drug discovery and development, alleviating animal involvement in conventional research and testing.
Eventually, companies like Organovo hope to use a special 3D printer to configure an organic, polymeric scaffolding in the shape of a specific organ or tissue in hopes of growing a heart, kidney, liver, or any other organ or tissue needed. One day, 3D printing could have the power to produce these organs and tissues, eliminating donor lists in the medical field.
And what about outer space? It has been reported that NASA has taken special interest in 3D printing for upcoming space missions. In order to decrease supplies, NASA may send their astronauts with a 3D printer so they can print exactly what they need, when they need it. This will eliminate the extensive inventory needed for an extraterrestrial excursion saving time, space, and money.
Coming soon to your home
Naturally, price is a big factor and the possible downfall of 3D printing. Kyle looks at it like this: “If I want to print off a new soap dish for my bathroom, the plastic is relatively cheap. However, my 3D printer is between $500-$1,000. A soap dish at Target is probably under two dollars.” To consumers, the largest challenge of 3D printing will be whether or not the benefits outweigh the costs.
While 3D printing grants its user the ability to print just about anything, it has also been said that 3D printing is a solution without a problem. But Kyle sees things a little differently: “3D printing is very empowering. It’s nice to know you can go on the Internet, download a design, and send it to your printer to have the object you need in your hands instantly. People need to start demanding more out of their technology, and 3D printing caters to those demands.”
As 3D printing continues to develop on both a large and small scale, there is no doubt that this technology will be a game changer. Perhaps one day, sitting next to our home desktop HP printers, will be a 3D printer that can help us print off a spare toothbrush for an unexpected house guest, a couple of extra drinking glasses to replace broken ones, a new pair of shoes, or a duplicate of that lost screw.