As a kid, I loved cartoons because it was a world in which anything was possible. Teleporters, robots, laser beams and even spaceships that collapsed down into a briefcase a la George Jetson were possible. My favorite gadget was the food machine in the Jetson’s house. With the push of a button, any food would magically materialize. Now that was cool!
Some cartoon magic is still far from reality, but the advancement of 3D printers means we can enjoy amazing things at the push of a button. No it can’t make food — yet — but it can make just about everything else, from hip joints to auto parts to circuit boards. The good news is these printers are relatively easy to use and surprisingly affordable.
How can a printer make an object?
The word “printer” is confusing because we think of printers as printing images on paper. Instead of thinking of it as printer, think of it as a “maker” because that’s what it does. It makes things.
What is a 3D printer?
A 3D printer is a machine that makes objects by building them layer by layer, much like a traditional layered cake. Imagine you want to make a layer cake with ten layers of ice cream, each a different flavor. You first start with the bottom layer. You lay down chocolate ice cream, then vanilla, then strawberry and so forth.
This is the way 3D printers work. Instead of ice cream, they use liquid, powder, paper or even metal. The printer has a nozzle that moves back and forth quickly over a plate to build your object layer by layer. The difference is in the number of layers. Instead of 10 layers, like a terrific ice cream cake, a 3D object might have 2,000 extremely thin layers.
Each layer is a horizontal cross-section of the object being built. You can visualize the building of these thin layers as the opposite of a cheese slicer. With a cheese slicer you slice off a small cross section of your cheese. With a 3D printer you add a small slice.
Where do you get one? How do you use one?
These types of printers are readily available for purchase online at places like MakerBot, Quant 3D and Amazon. Prices range from a few hundred to many thousands of dollars, depending on the complexity of the machine.
They connect to your computer like a regular printer. The printer reads a 3D printing file instead of a word processing file. You need a 3D program to draw your object in this format. Professionals use programs like Rhino, LightWave, Cinema4D or Autocad. But 3D printing is for more than just experts. Entry level programs include Sketchup, OpenSCAD, Wings3D, Scupltris or Autodesk 123D. Even young kids can go to the website Tinkercad to create an object in 3D format. Imagine how a 6-year-old feels when they create a doll on this program and minutes later print it out and play. Talk about immediate gratification!
The world of 3D printing is fairly young, but it’s accelerating quickly. Its uses are virtually limitless. For inventors and entrepreneurs, 3D printing can shave loads of time and money off the development process. For medicine, it could mean a surgeon can create a replacement hip for a patient by scanning and then printing an exact copy of a patient’s actual hip. From an ecological standpoint, it might also cut down on shipping costs, especially for astronauts. Instead of incurring the expense of sending a replacement part to the Mars Rover, imagine being able to print a new one right there on Mars.
That said, 3D printing has some significant limitations. Most 3D printers can only print a single kind of material — usually a plastic — in just one color. More expensive printers can make items with several colors. And there are currently no 3D printers capable of making complex devices with electronics or sophisticated moving parts.
That said, 3D printing has the potential to change the way we do business. Already today, Amazon has opened its own 3D printing store, where you can personalize a variety of items and have them custom printed just for you. And soon, Internet shopping with express shipping might be replaced by 3D printing. We’ll be doing it the George Jetson way. Push a button and let it just magically appear.
Image credit: Jonathan Grossman