Let’s say you spot a cool sculpture, a cute toy, or an exquisite piece of jewelry that you simply must have for yourself. Is it possible to quickly replicate that one-of-a-kind object … at home?
While it might sound like a futuristic fantasy, creating three-dimensional objects at home today is not much more complicated than printing a document on your home printer. And plastics—due to their, well, plasticity—are one of the primary materials used for 3-D “printing.”
But 3-D printing goes way beyond home hobbyists: it may well be the future of manufacturing.
A 3-D printer functions sort of like an ink jet printer—except instead of using ink to print a flat image on paper, it typically uses plastics or various powdered materials to build an object, layer upon layer, in three dimensions. (It seems rather odd to call this “printing” when an actual object is created, but that’s the term of art.)
The printing process begins with a computer file made by a 3-D modeling program or by scanning an object with a 3-D scanner. Some software actually can turn two-dimensional photographs of an object into extremely accurate three-dimensional data before printing.
Computer software “slices” the image on the computer file into numerous horizontal layers. Then the printer physically creates these layers, one by one, as nozzles slide back and forth to apply quick-drying plastics or other materials. Plastics are easily molded, so the slices blend together to create a solid object without visible layering.
Some printers are small enough to sit on your desktop; others are large enough to create industrial equipment.
Is this simply some toy for the wealthy? Not at all: its use is rapidly expanding in countless fields, including medicine, architecture, military, manufacturing, the arts, and more. Advocates suggest it could revamp the economics of manufacturing by revolutionizing the way consumer and other goods are manufactured.
How? Many mass-produced objects are created using “subtractive manufacturing,” in which pieces of material are carved away from a large hunk of material to create a product. This is often called “machining,” and it includes drilling, boring, grinding, sawing, lathing, carving, and so on, usually involving a machine and operator/s.
3-D printing is an example of “additive manufacturing,” in which an object is built up in layers. Additive manufacturing produces little waste—which controls costs and contributes to sustainability.
Depending on the type of plastic or other material used, a 3-D printer can make furniture, medical and dental implants, automotive parts, footwear, jewelry, construction materials, musical instruments—the possibilities are almost endless. Plus, some 3-D printers are mobile, so they can be deployed on site to build a house or to rapidly create a lifesaving device on the battlefield.
Make it at Home?
3-D printing may even change the way we purchase everyday products, ushering in a whole new era of unprecedented consumer convenience and creativity. Instead of buying tableware online or in a store, you might simply download a digital model and “print” plastic cups and plates yourself, in your own home. Thanks to 3-D printing—and the versatility of plastics.
Because a 3-D printer works from software instructions, products can be altered slightly at little cost, which makes producing a single item almost as economical as producing thousands. So companies—or you—could readily and inexpensively create custom-made products.
While 3-D printers have been around for decades, they only recently have become affordable enough for the non-wealthy. And get this: some 3-D printers actually replicate themselves by printing out the plastic parts needed to assemble a new printer.
Who really knows, but 3-D printing with plastics and other materials may well give rise to vast economic changes, fueled by a new burst of creativity enabled by this burgeoning technology. Nobody can predict the future, but we do know one thing: two-dimensional printing is sooooo last century …
Check out this rudimentary but accessible example of 3-D printing—a project that recycles plastic cups using a 3-D printer:
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