Industrial Revolution 2.0 – the rise of the 3D printer

“Creating life at the speed of light is part of a new industrial revolution. Manufacturing will shift from centralised factories to a distributed, domestic manufacturing future, thanks to the rise of 3D printer technology.” – Craig Venter

There are many libraries that have been lucky enough to have 3D printers in their midst and maker spaces for a long time. If you’re part of one of those libraries this post may not be for you rather it’s for those who, like me, have watched and read in awe about these fantastic and exciting devices.

With this post I’m is going to try to take away some of the mystery around 3D printers, how they work, their capabilities, how hard it is to make something with one, and what you need to know to make them work.

What is 3D printing?
3D printing creates three-dimensional objects from computer files. These objects can be made out of anything that you can think of– plastics, metal or even food. The intricacy and detail of the object is contingent upon the design and computer skills of the creator. Technological luddites need not apply.

3D printing works by splitting the three dimensional image into hundreds and thousands of micron thin layers, these layers are printed on top of one another until the object is complete. A form of additive manufacturing, through 3D printing you can create a single object or design something with multiple set parts which you put together.

In their book Additive Manufacturing Technologies: Rapid Prototyping to Direct Digital Manufacturing Ian Gibson, David W. Rosen and Brent Stucker identified the 8 core steps of additive manufacturing, and by default 3D printing;

  1. Develop a CAD drawing of the model/object you want to create
  2. Convert the CAD to a standard tessellation language (STL) formatted file
  3. Copy the STL file into the computer operating the 3D printer.
  4. Set up the 3D printer
  5. Print the model – depending on the size and materials used this can take hours or days
  6. Remove the printed object and check for errors
  7. Postprocessing – this is basically cleaning up the object so that it is ready to use.
  8. Use it!
Creating the file to build the robot
In order to make a 3D printable object you need to create the object as a computer aided design (CAD) file.

This can be built from scratch or by using a 3D scanner. A 3D scanner takes a three-dimensional image of the object which is then converted into a digital file. So if you wanted to create something using a 3D printer you could make a physical prototype and use a 3D scanner or make a digital prototype using CAD software.

Once you get your head around CAD software, and you are feeling adventurous, you could also try out its other uses: creating animation, houses, airplanes, cars – but I don’t recommend the last three unless you have the qualifications.

What opportunities do 3D printing present?
With every new technology there tends to be a polarised response within society – those who fear it and those who embrace it. Now we have had Chicken Little running around for a while saying that 3D printing is dangerous thanks to the capability for individuals to create weapons. This is a concern, however, I don’t think that the abhorrently wrong actions of the few should outweigh the opportunity that 3D printing presents for the many.

With its infinite potential 3D printing has the capacity to create unique and bespoke objects on demand. This on demand business model has been adopted by companies such as Shapeways. Shapeways allows designers and creators to upload 3D printable designs which anyone can then buy. Printed on demand in the material, colour and size you chose, Shapeways is a very unique merchandise company – it has no inventory, and as such, it doesn’t need to limit the products available for purchase, rotate stock according to seasons, or limit what is available to only that which is bought by a hundred people.

3D printing can also enable objects to be available in remote locations, like space. In December last year, NASA printed a ratchet wrench in space. Still in its testing stage, 3D printing presents an amazing opportunity for NASA to create science equipment in space as it is required rather than launch the resources there. To make this story even cooler NASA has released its 3D files, including the wrench, so anyone can make a space wrench. The open source files are available at http://nasa3d.arc.nasa.gov/models/printable

Sources:
http://computer.howstuffworks.com/3-d-printing.htm
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Computer-aided_design
http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/station/research/news/3Dratchet_wrench

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