3D Printing – the Basics
In an episode of the TV show The Good Wife, a man, using a domestic 3D-printer, manufactures a gun from a file downloaded from the Internet and, while testing it at a shooting range, accidentally hurts another customer. The victim sues the gun maker, who, for his part, wishes to sue the designer of the gun, the young man who made his project available over the Internet. If that strategy does not succeed, his lawyers will consider suing the 3D printer manufacturer for the malfunctioning of the machine (rumor has it the printer stuttered weirdly during the manufacturing activity).
According to Peter Diamandis and Steven Kotler in their book Bold: how to grow big, create wealth and impact the world, 3D printing is on the verge of exploding exponentially as a technology - the right moment, as they say, for entrepreneurs of all kinds to jump in - and will soon impact all aspects of our lives – bringing with it novel and unpredictable moral, ethical and legal issues, as indicated by the episode of the TV show we mentioned before.
What many consider the third industrial revolution (the first being the creation of the steam engine and the second, the mass production process initiated by Henry Ford) has already begun and, in the very near future, will change and influence everything we do: from how we work, play, buy, create and, ultimately, live our lives. The technology, created by Charles H. Hull in 1986, has finally found its path, and is evolving fast, boasting a fair amount of output as we speak, using a number of materials to produce automotive parts, toys, and perfectly fitting dental braces, among other things.
1. What is 3D-printing? It’s the process of building up a three-dimensional object from a digital 3D file, layer by layer, on moving platforms, using different kinds of materials. A 3D printer replicates the job of an ink-jet printer, only it does it with materials other than ink. It’s also called additive manufacture, as each layer of the object being made is added and bound to the previous one until the whole unit is produced. 3D printing can be used for both prototyping and making final parts.
2. What kind of materials can be used to print the objects? Among the many materials that lend themselves to 3D printing, we have metal, glass, plastics, polymers, wax, foods and human tissues. Many of the objects manufactured can be printed in color too. Depending on the size and complexity of the product, the process may take hours or even days to complete.
3. What can be made with a 3D printer? 3D printing will eventually be used in all kinds of manufacturing processes. For now, the areas and industries on which it’s already having an impact - and is likely to grow rapidly - are: automotive (e.g. fast production of parts); aerospace (e.g. low-volume replacement parts); space (specific parts to be used in space exploration); health and care (e.g prostheses and implants); consumer products (eg. rapid prototyping). The possibilities and potential for growth are huge. The 3D printing market value was at U$4 billion in 2015 and is estimated to reach U$10.8 billion by 2021.
4. What are the benefits of 3D printing? 3D printing takes prototyping and experimentation to a whole new level of effectiveness, speed and flexibility. Some of the most obvious benefits are the following: costs to produce are lower; the technology reduces waste and is, therefore, cleaner for the environment; the parts fabricated are more precise (prosthetic limbs for human beings, for example, are fit better and cause less pain); manufacturing can be located closer to the point of sales or consumption, avoiding the costs of storage and shipping; customization will increase exponentially: buyers will be able to have a say on whatever they purchase; creativity will soar.
5. What types of technology does it use? Without getting into the technical details, we need to understanding that all the available processes we list below follow the same basic principle, which is to build a 3D object from a CAD (Computer Aided Design) file or 3D scanned object (obtained from a scanner that makes a 3D digital copy of the object). The difference is the way the layers are disposed to make the object in each kind of technology. The processes are: vat photopolymerization; material jetting; binder jetting; material extrusion; powder bed fusion; sheet lamination; direct energy deposition.
6. Can I buy a 3D-printer? Yes, domestic 3D printers are mainly for hobbyists and enthusiasts. You can learn how to create your own 3D file (there are tutorials on YouTube) or download ready-made projects from specialized sites on the Internet. Domestic printers cost from U$ 500 to U$ 2000. Business printers' prices vary from U$10,000 to U$50,000, whereas industrial ones will be in the bracket of U$50,000 to U$200,000. For those who do not feel like buying 3D printers, there are service bureaus available, working through cloud computing. Prices are bound to drop drastically in the next few years, though.
7. What does the future hold? As the technology becomes even more sophisticated, more user-friendly and cheaper, the access will inevitably broaden. It won't be long before 3D printers become as popular as ink-jet ones. Despite all the benefits we mentioned, authorities need to be careful about it: after all, it will be hard, if not impossible, to control what is being made in someone’s garage. The dangers associated with the widespread availability and use of those printers, as seen in the episode of The Good Wife, are already being discussed and even happening. Two examples of these concerns are, for example, domestically fabricated plastic weapons without the required serial number, which could possibly go unnoticed by metal detectors (they are already being produced); the deregulated output of drugs of all kinds – medical or otherwise. We can’t help having new technologies fall in the wrong hands, but we must think one step ahead and come up with surveillance mechanisms to monitor the use of these developments. However, there’s no doubt that, still within our lifetimes, we will be experiencing disruptive changes in our lifestyles, connected to the use of 3D printing.