3-D Printing

By: Richard Brown
25 April 2012
Most of us are already aware that we are indeed living in amazing times. It doesn’t take much more than a short trip down memory lane for most of us to be able to think back to a time when there were no such things as personal computers, the internet, or even a home stereo smaller than a large briefcase  Of course, if we stroll just a little bit further, we might laugh at the wonderment we felt when we held our first  CD player, …or better yet,  our first Sony Walkman.

3D Printer at the Fab Lab

(Photo credit: kakissel)

I’m sure there are a lot of us who shake our heads and chuckle as we find ourselves chastising our children for taking their new cell phone for granted.”You know,…when I was your age, we had to walk a quarter mile just to find a phone booth when we were late for dinner.” we might say as we quietly think to ourselves, “But I’m not old! I’m only 35!”

These devices were so fantastic, some of us even saw ways to make small fortunes out of them. Remember how one of the greatest home business idea of the early 90’s was to “invest” in a slightly higher end printer for that new personal computer? That way you could follow the investment through to the purchase of a franchise styled assortment of creative software and different size decal blanks? To this day I can still hear the conversations of some who thought it was a great idea, but just couldn’t see the real practicality of spending a couple of hundred dollars on something that was normally just supposed to print out our monthly business reports. We look back now however, and again we chuckle to ourselves as we see the same type of printer in the discount bin at our local Walmart.

Looking back like that gives us a great opportunity to envision what some of the possibilities for the future might hold. We can already see how some of these devices are progressing. Android type devices and smart phones are becoming smaller, cheaper, and more powerful virtually overnight. Wireless technology is being added to most everything imaginable as standard equipment  and printers are printing solid three dimensional objects.

Engineers and designers have been using 3D printers for more than a decade, but they have remained virtually unseen by the general public due to their limited capabilities, and extremely high cost. Their primary use has been by large industrial corporations looking to make prototypes quickly and cheaply before they embark on the expensive business of tooling up a factory to produce the real thing.

The aerospace industry uses them to build scale models for use in wind tunnel testing, High end jewelers, plastic and metal fabricators, and automotive manufacturers use them to create molds used in the casting of parts. And in fields such as dentistry, to create custom fit products such as Invisiline braces.

Not restricted to a single type of material, these printers have become more capable, and are able to use materials like ceramics, plastics, nylon, stainless steel or titanium.

In medicine, programs can take the patient measurement information from an MRI image, Use software such as CAD to precision design the piece needed, feed it to the printer, and with extreme accuracy, precision, and quality, easily create the item using medical grade materials.

Components can be made from computer designs into production-quality metal parts in hours or days, against days or weeks using traditional processes. And the printers can build unattended, 24 hours a day.

Designs are easily modified without incurring the traditional high costs of retooling.
More than 20% of the output of 3D printers are now final products rather than prototype.

Once 3D printing machines are able to crank out products in large numbers, more manufacturers will look to adopt the technology.

At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Peter Schmitt, a PhD student, has been printing something that resembles the workings of a grandfather clock. It took him a few attempts to get right, but eventually he removed the plastic clock from a 3D printer, hung it on the wall and pulled down the counterweight. It started ticking.


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