3D Printers: How the Most Boring Part of Your Office Just Became the Coolest
Over the past 20 years nearly every aspect of how we think about, interact with, and create using computer technology has changed. Hardware has shrunk, screen resolution and image quality have soared, and point and click is giving way to touchscreen and voice input. But over that period, one major function of personal computers has remained relatively unchanged: the printer.
While undoubtedly there have been innovations and upgrades to print technology (they are faster, easier to connect with, and produce higher quality images to name but a few), the printer most of us have on our desks at home or the office doesn’t differ nearly as much from its antiquated counterpart as everything else that connects to it. Essentially, printers continue to be a way to produce a document or image created and stored on another device into a representation of that file on a piece of paper.
So who would have guessed that one of the biggest game changers in the new age of computers and technology would be a printer? Or that all the developers would have to do was add a dimension? Welcome to the age of 3D printing.
What is 3D Printing?
Those of you who have seen scores of “3-D” movies hit the Cineplexes and think the technology involved is similar, may very well undervalue what 3-D printers are already doing, and more importantly, what they will be capable of in the future. While anyone who has been fortunate enough to read the mathematically poetic Flatland is much more likely to appreciate the difficulty and implications of moving from a 2-D world to a 3-D world.
The difference between 3-D printers and movies, games, computer graphics, and other innovations that carry a 3-D tag all lies in the result, what is actually being produced. When you don a pair of 3-D glasses and pop in your Avatar Blu-Ray to watch on your brand new 3-D capable TV, what is physically produced by all this cutting edge technology is, actually, nothing at all. The multi-layered images on the screen, along with filters in the glasses create a perceptual illusion of depth. Reach out and try and grab one of those blue aliens and you’ll get (or I guess not get) the picture.
On the other hand in research labs, universities, and companies around the globe, 3-D printers are built, programmed, and used to make real, tangible objects. And the list of what objects are being printed seems to grow by the day. From machine parts to computer components to sneakers, even guitars, the printers look to be making a real product out of thin air. But as is so often the case, what looks almost like magic, is in reality the result of cutting-edge science and engineering.
How Does a 3D Printer Work?
So how does a 3D printer really work? While most 3-D printers existing today are only capable of making one or a handful of items, meaning that their designs all differ based on what they are trying to create, the basic procedure is the same across the board.
Step 1: Build an apparatus capable of storing and/or synthesizing all the different materials necessary to build the product.
Step 2: Engineer the device so that the materials can be moved, shaped, molded, and fit together by machinery contained within the printer.
Step 3: Write a complex computer program that will “instruct” the machine how to create the product from the materials and machinery contained in the printer.
Step 4: Press print!
Now that you have a basic understanding of how they work, you may be asking exactly how and when these devices will impact your day-to-day life. While the when question is a bit tricky, given both the complexity and scope of the technology, the labs and companies hard at work developing the printers are more than happy to give some insight into how 3-D printing may soon yield useful and even groundbreaking results. Here are a few examples of what’s being worked on now:
- Organovo, a private biotech firm, created the world’s first commercial 3-D bio printer. The device has successfully printed human liver tissue by programming a robotic arm to lower first one syringe containing a specific type of liver cells that are then printed on to a mold. Next, the second syringe deposits another type of liver tissue that fills in the honeycomb like mold. During the process a triangulation sensor is tracking the coordinates of the syringe tips in order to allow them to work together and deposit the “inks” in the correct location.
- Harvard University researchers recently showed off the first 3-D printed battery. Similar to the Organovo printer, the team behind the design of this printer notes that the battery required two separate types of “ink,” one for the cathode end and another for the anode end of the battery. Most 3-D printers currently available are only able to work with one type of material.
- Iris Van Herpen, a Dutch fashion designer, has produced dresses with designs she claims are impossible to impossible to obtain via conventional methods. Whether you find a dress of white plastic molded to look like a skeleton fashionable is a matter of taste I suppose, the fact that Ms. Van Herpen could produce her creative vision using her personal computer and a 3-D printer is pretty cool even if you think it’s tacky to print a white dress after Labor Day.
- Even the shoes we wear everyday may soon be put together by a 3-D printer. Brooks, a shoe company specializing in running shoes, already has the Glycerin 11 on the market, claiming printing the shoes produces fewer seams and stitches and a more form-fitting design, decreasing blisters and other frequent nuisances for active runners. Nike and New Balance are focusing on more specific sport markets, planning to produce football cleats (Nike) and track spikes (New Balance) within the next year.
Have we reached the point where scientists and engineers have put UPS and the Post Office out of business because Amazon no longer has to ship us our orders? When we can simply buy access to a program that will communicate with the 3-D printer on our desk and a few minutes later we will be able to reach in and pull out our brand new smartphone? Of course not, but, considering both the rate of progress over the past few years and the amount of interest and capital investment going into 3-D printing R&D, the idea is not as far fetched as it may have seemed a year ago. What will we have to report next year? Go get your engineering degree and join the other brilliant young minds working on that very question and maybe you can tell us. Good luck! p.s. start with a design to print jewelry, it will really help out all us forgetful husbands out there.