The idea behind 3D printing is to build an object from a virtual model by adding successive layers of material. Usually this is in the form of a thin plastic filament that is applied where needed, melted, and fused to the object. The layered approach is known as additive manufacturing, which isn’t original, but today’s technology gives us printers that can fully automate the process through computers. And it’s not limited to children’s toys – 3D printers are appearing that can use a variety of materials to make ever more complicated objects more quickly. Work is already being done with special materials such as human cells.
For most of us, 3D printing has already become a consumer market. Models can be quite affordable. Websites like thingiverse.com can give an idea of what’s being made these days, as well as access to files you could download and create yourself with a 3D printer. More workshops and forums are appearing related to the subject, so those just starting out will have no problem finding guidance and advise.
Setting up a 3D printer and getting it to operate correctly and consistently isn’t for the tech-challenged. It’s also a slow process that isn’t for those expecting to crank out and sell mass quantities of a new toy. But it is a rewarding pursuit that anyone with a little technical skill and patience can master.
But you could conceivably design that new toy. There are sites like Google’s sketchup.com offering free tools that will allow users to design objects and export them to 3D print files. Services like sculteo.com will print the object for you if you aren’t quite ready to invest in a 3D printer of your own.
They can be expensive, depending on your budget and what you want to make. Basic desktop models creating plastic objects from a filament spool might cost up to $1500. Higher-end desktop models that offer faster printing and finer detail likely cost twice as much. Stereolithographic printers use a layer of photo-sensitive resin, rather than plastic, that’s hardened by optics, and cost even more. Then you have powder printers that lay down the material as a fine layer of powder which is then liquefied by a solvent or laser and allowed to harden. The advantage of powder printers is that they can use many different materials, such as glass or metal. But these tend to cost upward of $10,000.
The automotive industry envisions a day when you can simply select your next car by inserting a credit card and pushing a button, then watch it being printed. And they’re getting there faster than you might think.Tags: featured