What the !$@# is a 3D Printer?

When you think of the future, 3D printing should be one of the first things that come to your mind. Many of the cool futuristic technologies we see in movies or read about in books may soon be realized through this cutting edge process.

First, Some History

In January of 1985, Apple released its LaserWriter printer. Although the first traditional laser printer had been developed in 1969 by Xerox, Apple’s new product was the first commercially successful printer and played a key role in the Desktop Publishing Revolution. This technology empowered average Janes and Joes across the world to self-publish on a scale and level of quality never before seen on a home appliance. Now, what if I told you that the seeds are being sown for a Desktop Manufacturing Revolution, based on a concept nearly as old as the LaserWriter?

Makerbot founders with an early prototype of their 3D printer (Credit: Makerbot Industries)

The “3D printer” was first patented in 1995 by two MIT graduate students, who went on to start a company called ZCorp. Another early initiative was RepRap, a project that developed printers that ran on free and open source software (FOSS) and were capable of printing many of their own parts. Much of the initial innovation and growth behind 3D printing was driven by the hacker/early-adopter/DIY communities. However, the potential of this new technology not only being used to rapid prototype, but to rapid manufacture, soon became realized. Today, “commercial” 3D printing is dominated by two companies: 3D Systems and Stratasys. There are also a variety of off-the-shelf personal use printers, the most popular of which is the Makerbot (recently featured in TIME magazine and Wired).

The Nitty Gritty

An important distinction that must be made about any type of printing is that it is fundamentally a process, not a product. The exciting prospect about 3D printing is that it employs a process of additive manufacturing. This means that instead of cutting down a block of marble like Michelangelo, or milling down a piece of metal like a modern machinist, an object can be built up layer by layer. The advantages of such a process range from the obvious to the subtle. For one, building something up does not require as much material to be wasted as when building something down. Alternatively, some 3D objects that require a lot of creativity and/or craftsmanship to construct using subtractive manufacturing, can easily be created using additive technologies. A great example is a ship in a bottle. Using a 3D printer, the bottle can literally be built around the ship.

(Credit: ALoopingIcon)

 The process behind additive manufacturing starts with creating a virtual 3D model of your object on a computer using CAD (computer aided design) or animation software. These specialized programs then “slice” the object into layers of thin, horizontal cross-sections. The 3D printing machine will build these layers one on top of another until a final physical object is constructed.

There are three main families of 3D printers, organized by the method they use to print: extrusion, granular, and light polymerized.

  • Light Polymerized (using light): Stereolithography is the original method for 3D printing that uses an ultraviolet beam to selectively harden layers of a liquid photopolymer. This would essentially look like a vat of liquid wherein the 3D object is traced out layer by layer. Stereolithography remains one of the most accurate methods of printing with a layer resolution of 0.06mm.

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  • Extrusion (using liquid): Fused deposition modeling (FDM) is an extrusion process developed by Stratasys that quickly became one of the most popular techniques for 3D printing. FDM involves using a computer-controlled nozzle to emit a molten thermoplastic that quickly hardens. The ability for FDM printers to use a variety of different materials (i.e. food (icing, cheese, chocolate), cement, cells, etc.) has made them the most versatile of 3D machines. Here’s a cool video showcasing Objet’s new Polyjet Matrix 3D printing process.

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  • Granular (using powder): The process of selective laser sintering starts out with a bed of powdered material (i.e. wax, polystyrene, nylon, glass, ceramics, various metal alloys, and even sugar). Then, as the name suggests, a laser is used to selectively melt together granules of the powder until the object is created.

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“Oh the Places you’ll go”

In two words, 3D printing has “great potential.” The possible applications of additive manufacturing range from the recreational to the practical to the paradigm shifting. As such, many classify 3D printers as a “disruptive technology,” heralding the birth of a “niche market for one” and the extinction of the “killer app.”

While realists assert that the technology will primarily be used to complement existing subtractive manufacturing methods, it is not inconceivable that 3D printing could impact the entire global economy (think of a time when you can print your own smartphone without the countless intermediaries between the manufacturer and your pocket).  Mass manufacturing of identical items may become a thing of the past as economies of scale become obsolete.

However, we still have a few more generations (at least) to go before this technology can really take off. In particular, printers need to be able to process higher resolutions, work with a variety of different materials simultaneously, and most importantly, get faster. Nevertheless, 3D printing is currently being utilized on the production end of manufacturing in the consumer, architecture, construction, automotive, aerospace, medical, and education fields.

A few cool examples are:

3D printed sugar (Credit: Oskay)

3D printed replica of a 2.8 million year old fossilized inner ear (Credit: Didier Descouens)

Earlier, I briefly touched on another inherent advantage to additive manufacturing: the enticing concept of perfect efficiency. By being able to control the design of every slice of an object, manufacturers will be able to optimize for material usage. For example, Stratasys has partnered with a small firm in Winnipeg that is developing an innovative 3D printed car called the Urbee. This automobile is being touted as the first in a new breed of highly durable and aerodynamically efficient transports achieved through additive technology. Similarly, at the University of Washington, three engineering students have built a relatively inexpensive 3D printer called “Big Red,” capable of making large objects out of shredded plastic. The students hope to replicate this technology in developing countries and have even prototyped a watertight canoe built out of 250 milk cartons.

The Urbee (Credit: Brent Toderash)

It is highly doubtful that the average consumer will be busting out coffee machines, pagers, light fixtures, and designer shoes from his/her 3D printer anytime soon. One of the greatest underestimations in all the speculation over 3D printing is the intense time and effort required to design something that can easily be ordered online or purchased at a store. If anything, the revolution spurred by 3D printing will instill a deep appreciation for the art of craftsmanship. Thus, a more realistic vision of the effect of 3D printing over the next few years is the average consumer being able to download base models of a variety of different products from the internet. Then, using a 3D printer, the consumer can customize the product to match his/her personal taste. Already, online forums such as Thingiverse, are popping up for people to share, upload, and download their own 3D designs.

Regardless, it seems like the sky’s the limit for the 3D printer and the myriad of possible applications for additive manufacturing. Here at the Intellectual Ventures Laboratory, 3D printers play an important role in meeting the demand for rapid prototyping among the various projects. Staff engineers and machinists can simply create a design on their computer and print out a model by the end of the day. This model can then be tested for viability, and can serve as a basis for a sturdier model milled from metal or cast. A 3D printer was even used to print out scaled down versions of a nuclear reactor for the TerraPower’s Traveling Wave Reactor.

Our in-house 3D printer is a member of the Dimension family. Check it out in action:

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5 Comments

  1. Katie Miller
    Posted March 21, 2013 at 8:06 am | Permalink

    Check out this great TED Talk — Lisa Harouni: A primer on 3D printing

    http://www.ted.com/talks/lisa_harouni_a_primer_on_3d_printing.html

    Lisa Harouni is the co-founder and CEO of Digital Forming, a company that works on the software side of 3D printing — the design tools needed to run the new generaion of 3D printing processes. She has a background in economics, and worked in the G7 Economics team at Deutsche Bank AG before moving over to the consumer products business.

  2. Mike Vinton
    Posted March 25, 2013 at 10:38 am | Permalink

    Great Post. Very nice history lesson

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    • Katie Miller
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