Unless you have been living under a rock with blinders, you have heard the buzz about 3D printing. However, if you are like me, you have heard enough to catch your intrigue but get overwhelmed with the inundation of data and industry-speak that is out there. This new shift in manufacturing is exciting, and I wanted to be able to fully understand and talk about it. Not just to the tech geeks, the ‘makers’, and fellow designers, but to anyone–i.e. your grandma, teenage niece, German tourists–that might be curious as to how this technology will be changing the way they we interact with the world around us in the future. Or just want a neon replica of the Travelocity gnome. Sigh.
What Is 3D Printing?
It starts with a virtual 3D model (via a digital file) that is transformed into solid form one layer at a time. Each layer is built on top of the layer before, creating a solid form representing the virtual 3D model in all of its complexity. Think of cave stalagmites forming over thousands of years. It is a similar process, just a couple light years faster.
How Does It Work?
There are several different types and many different sizes of machines that 3D print, but the process is essentially the same.
- Design using 3D modeling software (or download from the many free, open sources out there such as Tinkercad*) and save it as an “.STL” file that is readable by most 3D printers.
- Transfer/send the file to the computer that controls the 3D printer. You can get it printed at a Makerbot store if you are in NY, Boston, or CT but if not, you can use 3D Hubs to find someone with a printer near you. There, the user can designate the size and orientation and unique settings for the particular project (much like Page Setup for traditional printers.)
- Wait with bated breath as your precious object prints. Actually don’t, ’cause it could take awhile. (Each layer is approximately .1mm thick, but this could vary)
- Celebrate your ‘thing’, put it up on Thingiverse (Makerbot’s online community shareable objects and software to print), Instagram it, or gift it to your grandma, along with a (2D) printout of this post.
What Is It Good For?
For right now, you can only print out one material at a time. Most things are made of more than one type of matter, so that is a drawback. However, there are ways around this. See: NASA’s 3D-printed pizza–worth a peek.
Right now, it is great for
- building models and prototyping
- jewelry–especially customizable like the ones on DYO
- artificial limbs
- tech accessories including phone cases
- mechanical parts – often for those that are no longer in production
- toys / choking hazards
- Fashion– innovative designers like Michael Schmidt and architect Francis Bitonti designed a 3D printed dress especially for Dita Von Teese earlier this month. Because of body scanning technology, printing your own made-to-order apparel could be in the near future. Victoria’s Secret had a model donning a 3D snowflake ensemble in their fashion show this fall. Hashtag printyourownpanties.
- Health – already being used for skin grafts, the health are industry are making major gains in becoming closer to printing functioning organs.
- Commerce– Soon those skincare kiosks in your local mall or department stores may be replaced by 3D printing booths that would manufacture on-the-spot specific product types. For instance, a Nike shoes booth or perhaps a place in Macy’s to print plates & bowls.
- Cars? Guitars? Dildos? Guns? Oh my.
One thing is for sure, that we can not deny the possibilities for 3D printing technology and its future implications for saving time, money, the environment, and even lives. However, like any monumental, ground-shaking advances that threaten the way we live our lives from day-to-day, there are mixed and cautionary reactions. A shift in public opinion towards accepting and embracing 3D print manufacturing will happen as more scientific and technological breakthroughs are made in months and years ahead. Until then it never hurts to shed a little light on an extremely complex and misunderstood industry and to get people excited about it. One of the most appealing aspects to me is the accessibility of one-of-a-kind creation. Right now, you can literally print and customize a little plastic ANYTHING your heart desires. Am I awakening your inner designer yet? I hear the idea gears turning..or is that your stomach growling?
Here, watch the 3D printed pizza.
*a note about Tinkercad: I tinkered with it and found it to be really user-friendly. No software has to be downloaded and the tutorials give you a simple overview of how to manipulate the shapes that make up your ‘object. It was fun and child-like. I half expected Dora the Explorer to pop out and give me an encouraging ‘muy bueno’! You can design something from scratch, or browse through and modify others’ designs.
**Special thanks to the resources below that helped me keep my brain from melting while researching for this post:
Photos (from top to bottom) courtesy of MakerBot, DYO, & Albert Sanchez