3D PRINTING: WHAT’S THE FUSS ALL ABOUT
There’s so much about 3D printing on the internet nowadays. The technology which gradually gained prominence in recent years has attracted the tech enthusiasts all over the world with its innumerable uses and the hazard it poses. 3D printing or Additive printing is a process of creating a 3-dimentional product by printing material layer upon layer based on a digital model as opposed to the traditional subtractive printing common in industries which involves the removal of a part of the base material through cutting or drilling till the desired shape is formed. The major advantage 3D printing has over the latter is in the ease and speed in which production occurs and in the infinite forms that can be achieved using this process.
This technology has been around for a while actually, as Chuck Hull of the 3D Systems Corp invented the first working 3D printer in the year 1984. After that year, engineers started working on newer and more efficient versions of this machine based on various technologies like stereolithography, DLP projection, material jetting, material extrusion, fused deposition modelling, binder jetting to mention a few. The various manufacturers of these printers employ the method which best suits their goals during production with the big names being RepRap, MakerBot, Airwolf etc.
The process of printing is quite simple and straightforward just like traditional printing from a computer. For an object to be created, the user is required to upload a .stl file which contains the 3D design of the object to be created which is then imputted into the machine which prints out the product layer by layer and eventually fusing them together as specified in the design. However, the specifics of the technology utilized vary as aforementioned from printer to printer. There’s a smorgasbord of materials in which the printed object could exist with the common ones being plastic, rubber and metal depending on the kind of printer used.
This impressive technology was only available for large scale commercial production until a few years back when smaller version were made available for household/personal use. The cost of 3-D printers has decreased dramatically since about 2010, with machines that used to cost $20,000 costing less than $1,000.[ For instance, as of 2013, several companies and individuals are selling parts to build various RepRap designs, with prices starting at about €400 / US$500. The price of printer kits vary from US$400 for the Printrbot Jr.(derived from the previous RepRap models), to over US$2000 for the Fab@Home 2.0 two-syringe system. The Shark 3D printer comes fully assembled for less than US$2000, same price range for the most common laptops around. This has resulted in a sudden buzz which is quite evident on social network, tech blogs, and broadcast stations and all over the internet. Also, this technology seems to be getting attention due to its negative side which shall be discussed later in this writeup.
3D printing’s importance cannot be overstated as its uses cut across all occupations and spheres of life. It can be used for prototyping and modeling in the fashion industry, education, architecture and real estate, manufacturing field, medical and dental industries to mention a few.
Companies such as Hot Pop Factory are printing jewelries. Retailers such as New Balance are printing shoes. Designers such as Ron Arab are printing sunglasses. These pioneering innovations are exciting, but what’s a 3D printed necklace without a shirt or dress to match? 3D Printing and Fashion only met a couple of years ago, but their friendship is off to a promising start. With this technology, virtually all fashion accessories can be printed as a whole or printed in parts and assembled. Imagine you had this very important meeting only to discover you’ve lost a couple of your shirt buttons. All you need do is download the design file from your fashion designer’s website and connect to your printer and you’ve gotten your game back in no time. Due to the limitlessness of creating designs, designers can come up with a one-of-a-kind outfit for customers with special requests and we know how crazy ladies are about that! 3D printed dresses have started hitting the runway in some countries. Dutch designer Iris Van Herpen has been taking her 3D printed dresses and shoes to the runways since 2010. Mannequins of various shapes and sizes could be printed to model clothes also design files of parts like buttons and zippers could be uploaded on the company’s website for customers who might need a spare.
The romance isn’t restricted to the fashion industry alone people! Recently, Nokia showed their support of the technology; by releasing design files (.stl) enabling Nokia Lumia users make cases for their phones. However, to get the design files, users must have registered with the phone company. Nokia believe that 3D printing is likely to bring about phones that were “wildly more modular and customizable” and there is an opportunity for the company to sell a phone template allowing entrepreneurs to use that to produce handsets that satisfy the particular needs of their customer base.
The medical industry is not left out of this love affair either. Doctors have been scoring points in the life saving game through the application of 3D printing to healthcare. Some dental labs have for some years been using 3D printers to help create appliances, with envisionTEC selling its Perfactory Digital Dental Printer for use in the creation of crowns, bridges and temporaries by dental technicians. Using this technology, even long-term temporaries can now be created, meaning that 3D printers can quite literally already print you a new tooth! envisionTEC 3D printers are now also widely used by many major hearing aid manufacturers to produce ear moulds and shells for final consumer use. The medical guys are quite adventurous with this technology. Scottish scientists have invented a cell printer that squirts out living embryonic stem cells which is a big boost to regenerative medicine as scientists can test new drugs on printed tissues and even print new organs. Medical scientists have started treating patients using 3D laser printing and printing of human stem cells, human arms for patients with muscular disorders, external human ears replacements for accident victims and lifesaving implants.
The manufacturing and engineering fields benefit immensely from 3D printing. Prototyping just got easier and cheaper, engineering firms can produce machine parts to see how they function and if they fit perfectly before mass production is considered. Engineers at the University of Southampton recently 3D printed a flyable aircraft (well, aside from its electric motor). Rolls Royce is also currently running a project called MERLIN with the goal of using 3D printing in the manufacture of civil aircraft engines. A driveable prototype of a new electric car called the Urbee has also been 3D printed. Mainstream automobile makes are also already in on the DDM act, with Audi now 3D printing parts of its cars using Objet Polyjet 3D printers. Architects can create vivid building models without having to go through the stress of gluing and cutting cardboards. Also, it is a huge shot in the arm for small scale industries as packaging of produce and creating of parts have become less tedious and less expensive.
However, the technology comes with its bad effects as people have the liberty to print virtually anything ranging from clothes and machine parts to arms and ammunition. There has been apprehension over a Youtube video which showed a man shooting using 3D printed gun. The fear has even deepened due to the rate at which gun crimes are being committed in the US of late and with this technology everyone now has prospective access to a gun without proper licensing or supervision. It is going to be quite difficult for the government or makers of the printers to control what the printers are used for. Another danger posed by 3D printing is in the violation of copyrights and patents. Concerns are being raised about the possibility of massive increase in intellectual property infringement in years to come.
I must say, 3D printing has a very promising future with users coming up with more and more reasons and ways to use their printers. FOOD printing yeah , you heard right, is also on its way considering efforts made to print chocolate in various shapes, pasta, breakfast cereal and burgers. Also, food packaging could be improved. The possibilities are endless! You can even print a 3D printer with a 3D printer (this is actually impossible in the full sense of printing because the ICs and electronic components cannot be printed). So much can be done with 3D printing. For more info, the internet gives lots of uses of this technology. Who knows? We might just be able to design and print our homes ourselves.
Hamza is a tech enthusiast and an engineering student at the University of Ibadan. ff on @biodunalfet