As our computers, phones, tablets and other gadgets become progressively more intelligent and personalized, the home printer is not far behind. Thanks to their increasing affordability, desktop 3D printers are set to become household standards in the coming years—and the catalysts of a new technological revolution.
The way they work is relatively simple. After uploading a 3D design file created in CAD (computer-aided drafting) software, just select a printing material—which can range from rubber and plastic to metal and custom filaments—and let the printer do its work. After reading the file, it will begin creating the object by releasing small amounts of the material, layer by layer, in a process known as additive manufacturing. After all the layers have been added, which can take from minutes to several hours depending on size, you’ll have the physical object right there in your hands.
To get started, all you need is the printer and a design file. If you’re savvy with CAD software, you can create your own original designs at home, but there’s no need to fret if you’re not much of a virtual designer. A slew of websites are popping up offering downloadable designs for the everyday consumer, such as thingiverse.com, which features more than 28,000 projects, models and “things” that can be printed on MakerBot Replicator 2 Desktop 3D Printers.
A global leader in desktop 3D printing, MakerBot has thus far sold more than 13,000 machines to engineers, designers and other early adopters since its 2009 founding. The company’s 3D printers are relatively inexpensive, ranging from about $1,800 to $2,800, while others are beginning to be offered for just over $1,000—a price low enough to practically guarantee mainstream adoption in the near-future.
The possibilities of 3D printing really stretch as far as the imagination. You could print original action figures, dollhouse furniture, custom key chains, jewelry, game pieces or other items suited to your choice of hobbies. You could create your own utility items—screws, hangers, curtain hooks, forks, cabinet knobs, etc.—instead of going out to a store and buying them. Auto enthusiasts are using the technology to produce discontinued car parts, while architects are using it to build complex development models. This technology has the potential to transform not only manufacturing, but industries ranging from healthcare to education to fashion.
3D printers are already being used to create some remarkable things, including:
- Apparel. Dutch designer Iris van Herpen is using 3D printing to create couture dresses made from rubber metal materials, as well as a line of shoes.
- Food. Cornell University, in partnership with New York’s French Culinary Institute, has made miniature (and edible) scallop and cheese space shuttles. The team has also experimented with 3D printing using cheese, turkey, chocolate and hummus.
- Aircraft. In 2010, British engineers created the first custom-printed aircraft, which boasted flight speeds of up to 100mph. Everything except for the plane’s engine was made using a 3D printer.
- Transplant parts. In 2012, a British woman became the first person to receive a 3D-printed jaw bone transplant. Made entirely of titanium powder, it took less than a day to produce and reduced surgery time from 20 hours to just four.
- Vehicles. Kor Ecologic recently unveiled Urbee, the world’s first 3D-printed car. The company claims the two-passenger hybrid uses eight times less power than the average vehicle and can get up to 200mpg on the highway and 100mph in the city.
Already a $1.3 billion-industry, 3D printing is projected to grow 300 percent over the next decade—to $5.2 billion by 2020. And with the further sophistication of the technology, consumers can soon expect to see 3D printers with integrated scanning capabilities—allowing users to replicate objects around their house. We may still be a ways off from the replicators envisioned by Star Trek, but it’s clear that this sci-fi future is increasingly becoming a part of our present. iBi
Sources: hightable.com, blackenterprise.com, makerbot.com