Are You Ready To Replicate? 3D Technology is here!

latestSince the time when speculative science-fiction first started to boldly go where no man had before…. We have long pined for the ability to have whatever items we may need or desire without having to wait or go anywhere to get them.

Now, as with many other things we have seen transformed from fantasy to reality, technology has finally caught up with this fantastic vision.  The first generation of equipment for producing on-demand, complex items has arrived, and it is known collectively as 3-D Printing.

fabclay-3d-printer-7Years ago certain industries began to develop niche machinery for the purpose of producing low quantities of items, often for prototyping designs of new parts.  These have always been too large, expensive, and specialized for general-purpose use.  In recent years other collateral technologies such as composite materials and CAD (Computer Aided Design) have advanced to the point where they can overcome these previous obstacles, and the home 3D Printer is now a reality.

While it may still be a little early for us to print machines with machines, the early models available today can produce an amazing array of items and products, produced from an ever-growing list of available raw materials…plastics and resins, clay, silicone, porcelain, laminates, and even precious metals.  Any of these can now be used alone or in combinations to “print” very detailed and precise creations for many different uses.

How do these fabled devices actually make anything?  The answers are actually pretty simple.

While there are a number of different processes and approaches, they all generally revolve around a single concept: a prepared raw material (resin, for example) is fed in to one or more computer-controlled nozzles that heat and then extrude it in particular patterns and shapes on to a printing tray.  The material then cools, hardens, and forms in to the desired object.  Simple, right?  Yes, and no.  The concept certainly works in practice, but it has taken a great deal of research and testing to refine the processes to the point they can be practical for mainstream use.

imgres-1Companies from MakerBot (new and pioneering) to Dremel (established tool maker) are now selling 3D printers small enough and affordable enough for consumers to use at home.  The raw materials needed are available cost-effectively from numerous sources, all prepared and ready to be fed in to a 3D printer.  Designs and the tools to make them can be obtained easily online, and are increasingly user-friendly.

Don’t have the budget or free counter space for one just yet?  No problem. Thanks to services such as Shapeways, you can order 3D-printed items from an expansive catalogue which includes everything from toys, jewelry, artwork, to even cell phone accessories.  Already took the plunge and bought a 3D Printer, but can’t think of anything to print?  Check out sites like Thingaverse to find tons of shared designs to download.

Even beyond the consumer market, the same technologies are also helping forge new ground in other areas, such as bioprinting (3D Printing of non-living tissue) and even food printing!  Soon everything from skin grafts to sandwiches will be produced just as quickly and cheaply as the new iPad case you just printed in your basement.

Captain Janeway ordering tea in "Star Trek: Voyager."

So, the next time you get home from a day of running around from store to store and realize that you forgot the one thing you originally went out for, you can feel better knowing that type of agony will soon be a thing of the past!

In the meantime, I’ll be practicing the right way to say, “Tea, earl grey, hot!”

Chris Nichols
Project Manager

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