Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Introduction to 3D Printing

What is this 3D Printing Stuff Anyway?

My first post was about fusing 3D printing with electronics using living tissue to make what will become body part replacements.    I thought I would back up and explain about 3D printing.   I will try this from two directions.

Lots of Layers

Think of a dot matrix printer combined with a glue gun and you have the start of a 3D printer.   In their simplest form 3D printers are machines that 'print' layer after layer of a material to create a three dimensional object.    There are many technologies that have evolved to do this that use various materials and delivery a spectrum of accuracy.   On the basic end there are $1000 hobby printers for home that you can use to print a basic Yoda in a single color of plastic.   On the other end of the spectrum there are printers that use lasers and titanium to print intricate moving parts for airplanes.   

An Academic View

No matter what the technology though 3D printers are about creating something - call it Fabrication.     A more technical term for 3D printing is Additive Manufacturing.   As the name implies it is about adding material to create an object.   Additive Manufacturing has been around for millennia.  Take pots and bottles made of clay.    The problem is until recently is was incredibly difficult to form or mold most useful materials like plastics and metals.    People spent lots of time and money to create molds from which products were created or they started with a block of material and and cut away stuff until you get the object you want - this is called subtractive manufacturing.   Think of a wood lathe or a CNC machine that creates aluminum wheels rims.    

Printer Input

So when you print an article, there are a couple of standard file formats that have been created like Postscript.    Same is true with 3D printing.    These formats are created using Computer Aided Design or CAD files.   CAD programs decompose objects into a multitude of layers of 2 dimensional 'drawings'.    Some common 3D file types are STL, PLY and VRML.   

3D Printing Benefits

There are some awesome benefits we are finding using 3D printing and Additive Manufacturing:
  • Little to no waste - you print just what you need - no carving or taking away.
  • Get it now - to make a plastic part you eliminate steps of creating a mold, melting plastic, pouring it into the mold and waiting for it to cool
  • Mass Customization - How often do you buy something and would like to make it yours - say make a customized phone case.   With 3D printing, modify the CAD file and hit the print button.
  • To each his own - Have you ever heard of Invisalign that is used instead of braces for your teeth?   Well every Invisalign is made using a 3D printer. 

Where can I learn More?

  There are lots of sources to learn about 3D Printing.    A few to get you started:

  • http://3dprinting.com
  • http://www.openfabrication.org
  • http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/3D_printing
Not into learning about the stuff but just want to see the cool stuff that people are doing with it:

  • Start with ThingiVerse    http://www.thingiverse.com
  • Search 3D Print Airplane or 3D clothes on Youtube - lots of other wild videos to.
  • Into art?   Check out http://www.the3doodler.com
Next time we can look at how 3D printing will change the world.