The advent of 3D printing (a.k.a. additive manufacturing) is one of the most fascinating technological breakthroughs of the past 40 years. To the uninitiated, 3D printing is the process of manufacturing a three-dimensional solid object by way of computer-aided modeling. Although the concept of 3D printing sounds somewhat futuristic, its premise is grounded in readily available technologies: Just as a regular two-dimensional printer can spray thousands of dots of toner on a paper to form a given image, a 3D printer outputs accumulated layers of a more substantial material (typically plastic resin) until the combined layers form a three-dimensional object.
3D printing technology has actually been around since the mid-1980s, but 3D printers did not become commercially available until after 2010. The first 3D printer was invented in 1984 by a man named Chuck Hull. This early device operated on the basis of a technique known as stereolithography, which compiles layers of a photopolymer material to construct, or "print", a completed object. There are several different types of 3D printing techniques in use today, and several different materials are currently being utilized in the creation of 3D objects, including rubber, plastic and even metal. The common thread that runs through practically all of the different 3D printing techniques available today is that the materials used to create the finished product are typically in a liquid or powder form first, but then they are molded and hardened through the 3D printing process.
So how exactly does a computer-generated model of an object go from digital to physical by way of the 3D printing process? Typically, an object will be designed in some type of modeling software such as CAD (Computer Aided Design), which divides the object into several different virtual cross-sections in order to create a blueprint that will guide how the printer renders the object. Depending upon which type of 3D printing machine is used, the material that comprises the object (e.g. plastic, metal, etc.) is deposited in successive layers upon what is known as a "build bed" until the entire 3D object has been printed. Since the process is based on a digital model, a 3D printer can create an object of virtually any shape and size, and do it on the spot. This carries staggering implications for the future of fabrication and manufacturing in general.
3D printing has already become a game-changer across a variety of different fields and disciplines. Hobbyists and Do-It-Yourself (DIY) enthusiasts have utilized 3D printing technologies to print various ornamental objects and basic household items such as backscratchers, doorknobs, coathooks, etc. Several experiments in 3D printing have also shown promise in the area of the culinary arts; since certain 3D printers use a technique known as "material extrusion", they are able to output objects comprised of several semi-liquid materials such as chocolate and cheese.
The field of reconstructive dentistry has utilized 3D printing to provide much-needed prosthetic replacements. Recently, researchers at the University of Hasselt (Belgium) were able to successfully print a customized jawbone for an 83-year-old woman. The Belgian woman is now able to speak, breathe and chew normally using the printed 3D jawbone.
Perhaps one of the more controversial uses for 3D printing has been the proliferation of printed plastic firearms that are able to shoot live ammunition. In May of 2013, an open-source firearms designer known as Defense Distributed published detailed instructions on how to print a working gun from a 3D printer, but they were subsequently required to remove the instructions from their website at the behest of the U.S. Department of State. The Department of Homeland Security has also raised concerns about the risks to public safety that unregulated 3D firearm printing could bring, and the issue is still being hotly debated today. There are several remarkable implications for the military usage of 3D printing as well, including the ability to manufacture supplies and weapons for soldiers "on the fly" in field missions.
The world of fashion has also embraced 3D printing technology as a means to promote innovative new products. Leading companies such as Nike and New Balance are utilizing 3D printing to create customized athletic shoes, and several cutting-edge fashion designers have also been experimenting with 3D dresses and bathing suits.
Perhaps one of the most astounding applications for 3D printing has been in the medical industry, where Chinese scientists have recently begun to print various 3D organ samples from living tissue, including ears, kidneys and livers. Other advances include the ability to print customized casts that match the bones of the individual in order to provide a more accurate fit. Some scientists predict that fully functioning organs may be able to be printed within the next 10 to 20 years.
The space exploration industry has also shown significant interest in 3D printing technologies. Experiments are currently being conducted to determine the viability of creating certain useful objects such as hand tools and other devices basically "on demand" in zero-gravity environments. This would alleviate the need to use valuable resources such as cargo space and fuel in order to initially transport the objects into space, potentially reducing the overall costs of space exploration.
The field of education is greatly benefiting from 3D printing technologies, as it allows students in the fields of science and engineering to have virtually immediate access to their design and modeling prototypes and projects. The automotive industry has been conducting heavy research into 3D printing as well, as it can allow them to create experimental or replacement parts on-demand, and in a cost-effective manner.
As you can see, the range of industries and disciplines in which 3D printing can bring substantial progress are numerous. As time goes on, we may see a day where products are ordered online and then immediately printed in the home. Considering the rapid pace at which 3D printing technologies are developing, the sky is truly the limit.
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