The potential of 3D printing

3D printing

Even though 3D printing has been around since the 1980s (the first working 3D printer was created in 1984 by Chuck Hall), it is only since the early 2010s that 3D printers have become commercially available. Three-dimensional printing became a talking point in 2013 when more and more machines seemed to be manufactured, it was in the news on a regular basis and more interesting uses were being found for the process.

Another name for 3D printing is additive manufacturing. This alias is actually the best way to describe the process because 3D printing is the successive layering of materials on top of each other in different shapes to form a complete object. To explain it even better, traditional machining is what is called a subtractive process where material is removed instead of added via cutting or drilling. With 3D printing, however, all you need to create your design of choice is a digital design, the materials you want to use (none of it goes to waste through subtraction) and, of course, a 3D printer.

Many materials can be used by a 3D printer to create an object. Steel, cermamics, sterling silver, sandstone, brass, rubber, bronze, plastics and more are all materials that have been utilized. This makes the possible creations one can make endless. The process by which those materials are printed can vary depending on the type of printer you have but it is usually sprayed, squeezed or transferred from the printer onto a special platform. The printer makes passes from one end of the platform to the other and deposits a layer each time. The entire process is obviously more complicated than that but we leave that to you to look up the science behind it.

There are many uses for 3D printing, everything from the mundane and frivolous to the life-changing. In the health industry, 3D printing is having a huge impact. Everything from hearing aids to dental implants and customized leg braces have been created and used successfully so far. 3D printing also creates models that surgeons, practicing doctors and trainees can use to make sure they do what they have to correctly. Saving wildlife is also another use. Recently a 3D-printed prosthetic beak, the first of its kind, was created for an eagle after being shot in the face by a poacher. Now it has a chance at surviving in the wild again.

NASA is looking at ways in which astronauts can use 3D printing to print what they need as they need it while in the space station. There is even a huge 3D printer that stands about 6 metres tall called the KamerMaker (literally translated as room maker) that has the ability to print an entire room. It can be a great innovation for perhaps solving the housing problem that is so prevalent in many countries. One of the more astonishing and baffling uses that have come forth recently is 3D-printed meat. The makers of this product believe it could help people get the protein they need without harming animals or the environment. But not to worry, this 3D-printed meat will not be hitting our restaurant tables any time soon because the process is still being refined.

The fun things one can do with 3D printing are endless. I have personally seen things like a chess set, guitar, rocket-shaped espresso cup, bracelets, earrings, wine glasses and even chocolate! And these things are readily available for anyone to buy on online shops like Etsy.com. Companies like Shapeways allow you to create your own unique design and then they print it for you. Yet many may ask themselves if 3D printing is something that will become a household object in people’s homes one day.

Apart from the price tag which may be out of reach for most people (they can start from $100 and go up to $15,900), there are other things to take into consideration when talking about the possibility of 3D printing becoming an everyday sight. Counterfeiting may become a real concern as copyrighted products can be created using these 3D printers at home. Dangerous items have already been created using 3D printing such as a fully-working metal gun (it has already shot 50 rounds and counting). Plastic guns have also been printed but couldn’t pass legalities because they were indetectable at places like airports, which is against the law in many countries.

It was at one point said that a con of 3D printing is the limited materials it can use and the fact that materials cannot be mixed. However, in January 2014 a company called Stratasys created a multi-material, multi-colour 3D printer. So that point is becoming moot. There may also be the danger of 3D printing costing people jobs (especially in manufacturing), something very important to upholding any economy. Also, to create large items (like houses) you need a large printer to match its size and these are not so readily available (except the KamerMaker explained above). Shortly technology will surely develop to eliminate this problem.

There are plenty of advantages to 3D printing alongside the problems mentioned. The process from design to actualized object is rapid which, of course, saves time and money. The time spent creating a large number of objects then also speeds up. 3D printers have a high initial setup cost but as they become more popular, prices will decrease (as with any new technology). When prices become more reasonable, people will be able to create household objects quickly and with less cost than it might take to actually buy that type of product.

Product waste basically goes out the window, since you don’t cut up products but simply add layers of material on top of one another. You only use what you need and no leftovers are created. Another way 3D printing reduces waste is the fact that one only creates what it is ordered. A customer orders a product; it is printed and then sold. With traditional manufacturing, surplus products are often created to compensate for anticipated demand. If these are not sold, many products are discarded. Even though I said previously that jobs will be lost, the manufacturing, fixing and maintaining of 3D printers need people so jobs may be created in that way.

It is too early to know whether 3D printing will catch on. Is the manufacturing process solid enough to create long-lasting products? Will “normal” people be able to afford buying 3D printers? Will people see the use in 3D printing or shirk this for mass-produced products they are familiar with? Is there too much potential for abuse in terms of copyright infringements, counterfeiting and the production of dangerous weapons? All of these questions will probably soon be answered. In the meantime, keep an eye on the news and perhaps even try out purchasing small 3D-printed objects – the novelty of it will be a great gift for anyone.