At its most basic definition, 3D printing is a general term used to describe technologies that build objects layer-by-layer. Did you know that 3D printing dates back to the 1980s? The first 3D printer was created by Charles Hull, an American engineer, for use in manufacturing and rapid prototyping on a commercial level. However, a lot has changed since the 1984 and 3D printing is now more accessible than ever.
Growing rapidly in the last few years, 3D printing has been adopted by many industries. The area of medicine was quick to recognize the uses of the technology and has produced incredible results from the creation of plastic tracheal splints and limb prosthetics to 3D printed skin and casts.
3D printing offers a range of benefits not least of all its incredible ability to create customizable objects and fittings like no other machine before. Compared to subtractive manufacturing, the process by which 3D objects are constructed by the cutting away of elements from a solid block of material, the 3D printer employs the additive method allowing complex production and far less, if any, wastage than the former.
The material used in the printing process ranges from plastic and metal to glass and ceramics and this is diversifying with companies already looking at 3D printed food. Natural Machines, a start-up based in Barcelona has used the same technology to create a 3D printer that deploys edible ingredients through stainless steel capsules. This invention is called the ‘Foodini’ and although it is a long way from be a staple item in homes across the world, it is a testament to just how many options a 3D printer can allow.
On a general level, the maker movement has been instrumental in providing pathways for the everyday person to access 3D printing for a range of uses. This movement describes the contemporary trend in which individuals or a group of individuals employ the do-it-yourself (DIY) and/or do-it-with-others (DIWO) approach to ‘making’.
The great information highway has allowed creatives and makers to connect and form communities with the intent to exchange ideas and resources. These exchanges are also found in physical spaces. Think of Maker Spaces as a more egalitarian take on the ‘Men’s Shed’ in that they are literally a space where anyone, regardless of age or sex, can come to use equipment, partake in a workshop, work on a project, or learn new skills. 3D printers can often be found in Maker Spaces, as common these days as a saw or angle grinder.
So, you have access to a 3D printer because your local library or arts centre has become a Maker Space or you just bought one from Aldi (yes, Aldi!), but how do you use it? Almost all files that a 3D printer is capable of reading can be produced using CAD (computer-aided design) software and the machines themselves come with a software suite of their own. CAD software can be bought at a range of prices from expensive commercial packages like AutoCAD or free/open-source products like FreeCAD that are multi-platform. Don’t worry if you’re not a designer either because you can access 3D object databases such as Cults 3D, Thingiverse or GrabCAD that eliminate the need to design your own.
The question remains though, why might you use a 3D printer? You’re not a doctor, or a food producer or a designer, so what can you do with this technology? Here is a simple example: you’ve lost the panel that covers the batteries in your tv remote. Instead of taping the batteries in place or buying a totally new remote, you can use a 3D printer to make a new one, usually for a few cents! Perhaps you have some machinery that needs fixing, but the parts are so expensive you may as well purchase a replacement. If you had access to a 3D printer, you can print the items you need for a fraction of the cost, eliminating the need to waste what you have by throwing the machine out.
Although you may not see a 3D printer in your home any time soon, the technology is developing at a rapid pace. Places like arts centres, makers places and service providers are already making it easy for people to use this equipment, creating fun, collaborative places where you can meet like-minded people, learn new skills and contribute to a society that produces less waste.