3D printers are much more developed than you might think, and for a few hundred dollars you can have your own
Just recently, my editor sent me a link about 3D printers being used to create micro-batteries. But what really impressed me was how he then revealed that when he first heard about 3D printers, he thought that they were “gimmicks, or something architects might use for models” (I hope my editor lets me keep this column, since I’m now revealing how un-geeky he is).
My knee-jerk comeback was that the first time I read about 3D printers was way back in the early 80’s – on page 11 of Usborne’s 1979 Future Cities: Homes and Living into the 21st Century, to be precise. (Yes, I had to look up the page number…in the same book that still sits on my shelf today.)
That article sparked my imagination. It spoke of using lasers to carve and solidify a liquid to make 3D objects: “By following pre-set instructions, the lasers can ‘carve-out’ any shape in the tank… it may be possible to create virtually anything.” The phrase “create virtually anything” was enough to spark a geeky boy’s imagination, especially one who’d been reading such notable science fiction stories from Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov. I dreamed of all the things I could do with a 3D printer sitting on my desk, but what I really wanted to do with it was make bionic body parts (Six Million Dollar Man, anyone?) and more ‘down-to-earth’ parts for my plastic scale model airplanes and spaceships. (3D printer manufacturers: feel free to send one for review, ASAP!)
So how exactly does 3D printing work? Amazingly, that 1979 kid’s book had it right on the mark. It’s essentially one of the ways a modern 3D printer works: a laser carves out a shape in a gel or liquid substrate, which solidifies where the light is focused. However, the increasingly commonplace method is what the linked article above mentions: stacking layer upon layer of dimensional ink or powdered material that is fused together with heat or some other form of binding agent (glue, for the rest of us). The movement of the print-nozzle (or platform on which the model is created) is in turn controlled by the instructions sent to it from the computer that’s connected to the printer. And I bet that in a couple of years, you don’t even need to know anything about Computer Aided Design (CAD) to get a great model going because lots of easy-to-use consumer software will be available for you to design, tweak, modify and custom-make your own 3D models for printing. (Today, even Microsoft Word comes with its own ready-made templates for all sorts of writing projects you might encounter). 3D printing is called an additive process because material is added on to create the object. Unlike its predecessor, the subtractive process where a machine would mill out the parts from a big block of material and end up with a lot of the material on the floor unused, the additive process results in far less wastage of material. You can find a good “big picture” summary of the 3D printing process here. This could be more fun than Legos, and has potential to become the gift that keeps on giving.
Not too long ago, these 3D printers were available in the order of $20,000. Now, enthusiasts can find models for $500. The Buccaneer (pause there and think about the title and the name of the website where it’s advertised: http://pirate3d.com/) is touted as a “3D printer that anyone can use”; at $347 and fully assembled, you can now pre-order it on Kickstarter. (I wonder how much it’ll cost to get a 3D printer to make a 3D printer.)
There are many applications for 3D printing that go far beyond mere toys. In May 2013, Cody Wilson, a University of Texas law student, 3D-printed, test-fired his own working gun, and made the news. But he didn’t just stop there as he then proceeded to freely distribute the template online for anyone to print their own guns (including parts for the AR-15, the same type of gun used in the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting). That sent governments and lawmakers scrambling to play catch-up, and it’s easy to imagine that even with laws in-place, Pandora’s box has been opened… and replicated. The US Department of Homeland Security requested that the templates be removed from the website, but you know how it is online: even one file already downloaded can be easily duplicated and exponentially distributed. Do a search on YouTube and you’ll find videos showcasing working 3D-printed firearms. I’m now rolling my eyes at what’s going to happen to already long lines at airports when metal detectors will essentially be rendered useless with regard to detecting 3D-printed plastic firearms.