The 3D Printing Revolution

The Revolution May Not Be Televised

Cubify 3D Printer, demo at CES 2013

Cubify 3D Printer, demo at CES 2013

The 3D revolution is coming but it may not be televised... at least not on a 3D television. The truly revolutionary 3D technology is not around 3D television – it's around 3D printing.

Eventually 3D printing will have as much or more impact on our daily lives as the internet has had. Essentially you’ll be able to order almost anything you need and have it printed on demand for you. For smaller items, you’ll be able to print them right at home. And the future is coming soon – for the first time home 3D printers are available at relatively low prices, with entry level models starting at $299.

Uses for 3D Printing

In this news this week, the world's first 3D printed gun was successfully fired in Austin, Texas. The gun is made of plastic that can fire with the addition of a metal firing pin. The group which created the gun Defense Distributed, is also generating lots of controversy as they plan to share the digital files used to generate the gun online.

Guitar with 3D printed Body in Cubify booth at CES

Guitar with 3D printed Body in Cubify booth at CES

Initially the uses for on-demand printing may be limited to more simple items. You can easily print an iPhone case on a home printer or order one to be printed one demand. But forget about printing an actual iPhone anytime soon. Useful products can be made now, ranging from small phone cases to decorative objects,  jewelry and even guitars.  There are, however, limitations to what can be produced. Even things things that can be printed may either take too long or just not yet be cost effective.

3D printing is great for things like simple replacement parts. You may need to replace a knob from an old stove that is no longer available. You can essentially scan one of the existing knobs to then create a printed replacement knob. You may also find plans for lots of generic parts being traded freely online.

Even now, larger and more complex objects and parts are being created. Airbus and GE are using 3D printers to manufacture aircraft parts, including parts for jet engines.  A Belgium-based company, Materialise, is now using 3D printers to produce folding chairs made from one continuous piece of plastic, including the hinge. Most hearing aids are manufactured with 3D printing. Dentists are now creating custom crowns on in their office for same-day crown replacements.  Building are being built using 3D printing, and some of the results will look very different than buildings commonly seen today.

3D printers can also be used to print various foods. For example, candy can be printed out of melted sugar or chocolate which is used in the printer instead of plastic.  More complex foods will ultimately be printed by combining different foods into the printing process.

Cubify 3D Printer

Cubify 3D Printer

Home 3D Printers

One of the companies producing astoundingly good inexpensive 3D printers is Cubify. I met them at a couple of events over the past year and was amazed to see the first ready-to-use quality home 3D printers starting at $1,299.  This printer was voted MAKE magazine’s “easiest to use” and “most reliable” 3D printer. Staples just announced it would be the first office store chain to sell 3D printers, starting with a Cubify's Cube 3D printer. It's is already available for purchase through Staple's online store for US$1299.99.

The famous Makerbot 3D printers were available as kits, but now the Makerbot Replicator can be purchased assembled, starting at $1,999, with more advance models available at higher prices.  There are cheaper 3D printers, selling for as little as $299 to $999 from Printrbot, some of which only print in PLA, which is lower quality than ABS. These printers look more like kit machines and may not be as sturdy as some of the more costly printers.

3D printed building and skull in Cubify booth at CES.

3D printed building and skull in Cubify booth at CES.

How Does 3D Printing Work?

Printing is done either by additive or subtractive methods – that is either by adding material, one layer at a time or by removing material from an object (as in traditional milling). For some purposes both methods may be used together to produce optimal results. Most 3D printers use the additive method to compile layer after layer of 2D images. Most printers today also print using various plastic materials, such as PLA, ABS, PVA or HDPE.  While it's possible to print metal objects, it's very expensive.  The alternative is to print a plastic object, which is used to create a mold to then generate the metal objects.

Medical Uses

In recent years, medical researchers have started to print body parts or structures using smart bio materials, which can be a bridge for patients to help regenerate tissues. Bones have been created and transplanted using desktop printers. Researchers are also printing body parts using human stem cells or stem cells combined with smart bio materials.  They can take a sample of the patients own cells, which are cultured and then used to coat the bio material one layer at a time.  Experiments with a 3D printers have used livings cells to create a beating heart valve, liver tissues and even a kidney.

A Brief History

3D printed shoe, printed on Cubify printer

3D printed shoe, printed on Cubify printe

Up until recently 3D printers were mainly used for specialized purposes like rapid prototyping for things like industrial design and architecture. In the early days of 3D printers, starting in the 1970s, the printers were large, expensive and fairly limited in what they could produce. But now fairly decent compact desktop printers that would have cost $20,000 or more a few years ago can now be purchased for less than $2,000.  As the prices have dropped, they've been used more and more by hobbyists – who especially flocked to the inexpensive kit printers as they emerged in recent years.

The Future

3D printing will ultimately up-end how things are manufactured. Instead of mass producing items in China or some other far-flung place, you'll be able to purchase a design and have it printed for you at a local 3D print shop or have it printed on-demand and shipped to you the next day. It's similar to the way on-demand books are only printed one-at-a-time as order are made.

As 3D printers are getting better and less expensive, innovation is moving quickly.  Don't be surprised to find more and more products made this way from home 3D printers, via on demand manufacturing or at a local service centers – think Fedex-Kinkos with 3D printing. On-demand printing will allow greater customization, replacement of "out of stock" parts and will gradually simplify manufacturing and supply chain processes. While the use of 3D printing is still fairly limited, we can expect more and more items will be printed using 3D print technologies.

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