For decades, Science Fiction has been teasing us with ideas of what could be: flying cars, holodecks, and time travel. Surely these things would make the world a better place? Surely playground fights would be better if everyone had a light saber? Well one such idea is about to become reality. Ladies and gentlemen, you could soon be the proud owner of a matter generator (otherwise known as a 3D printer.)
3D Printing has been around for a few decades but has been limited to producing prototypes of product. A designer would generate a digital 3D model of a product and then send that design to a Rapid Prototyping Machine. After a few hours of the machine chiseling away at a piece of material, it would produce a model of the design that could be critiqued and improved upon. Whilst that’s all super convenient for product designers, it’s not terribly useful for us everyday folk. That is all about to change.
Since 2003, 3D printing has been developing into a process that is suitable for more than just prototypes. The beginning of the process remains the same (creating a 3D model on a computer) but instead of chiseling at a piece of material, the new process involves layering material. One such method consists of an Inkjet printer system that spreads out a layer of powder and solidifies one cross-section at a time using a binding agent (you can watch a video of the process here). Another process uses a small nozzle to draw out each cross section of the item layer-by-layer. The Inkjet system is currently the only method that can produce a colour model like Lotso the Bear.
You wouldn’t be crazy to think that Lotso model is soft and fluffy. However, he is a solid, plastic model. It’s not a huge jump to imagine him being produced from soft materials. The only thing stopping that happening is the materials currently being used by 3D Printers.
Filton, a town just outside of Bristol, United Kingdom, is where the magnificent Concorde airplanes were created. It is also where Rolls Royce manufactures plane engines and various other airplane parts. Machines there are now printing highly complex landing gear brackets. Researchers on this same site have loftier ambitions though; they want to print an entire wing. According to Terry Wohlers, who runs a research firm who specialize in the field of 3D Printing (or ‘additive manufacturing’ as it’s referred to in the manufacturing industry), more than 20% of the output of 3D printers are not prototypes but final products. His firm predicts that by 2020 that figure will rise to 50%.
Automobile companies are also producing parts using 3D Printers. However, unlike the airline industry, who merely dream of printing an airplane wing, Kor Ecologic is developing a car that puts the hybrid to shame. Jim Kor set out to create the most environmentally friendly car on the planet, the Urbee. Right now, various parts of it are being printed by Stratasys in Minneapolis. His dream is becoming reality. Of course, all the parts have to be put together by hand but remember the car models you build when you were a kid? It’s a giant version of that, except rather than sitting it on a shelf, you can actually drive it. Adopting the technology for these industries makes a lot of sense. The enhanced performance offered by printed parts is a big gain. For one, lighter cars/planes means less fuel is used on journeys (something I’m sure we can all agree we’d like to save money on.)
Aside from the fact that we’ll all probably be driving printed cars inside the next 15 years, there’s a good chance that when we crash, our broken body parts will be printed as well. In 2007, Professor Gabor Forgacs took several types of chicken heart cells and 3D printed them onto a cell-friendly gel. Once printed, the cells took over and developed into living, beating hearts. Of course, they’re just chicken hearts (note: not suitable for human use) but human organs could soon be on the way. In 2009, Organovo (a start-up that Forgacs was involved with) announced a $200,000 bio printer. In their press release, Organovo say that these printers will be available in the next year or so and “will only be capable of printing basic tissue like blood vessels” (sarcastic emphasis mine). There will eventually be no need to wait for a donor and body parts will be as expendable as a pair of shoes.
If you want to toy around with this technology right now, you can buy your own 3D Printer here for just over $1000 (sadly though, it will only print plastic models since the amazing printers are pricey and are reserved for those who know what their doing). Still, Christmas will be cheaper for you this year (everyone likes plastic models, right?) However, if you just want to show off without actually doing the hard work, you can buy various 3D Printed items here.
The future of this technology is nothing short of amazing. Just imagine the possibilities. Want a more efficient heart? Click print. Want lungs that are better for diving? Click print. How about a sandwich? That’s right, just click print. This technology is closer than ever.
Originally authored by me a few years back and posted at: http://guy.com/2011/03/27/the-fuss-3d-printing/