3D Printing: So Many Possibilities

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When people talk about “printing,” they usually mean the application of ink, toner, or some other contrasting substance to paper or other surface, such as clothing. The result, typically, is a two-dimensional representation of text or images, such as a document or photo.

If you’ve never seen a 3D printer in action, it’s easy to imagine that it could be a method for applying ink to three-dimensional objects. It isn’t, though. In fact, a 3D printer doesn’t use “ink” at all—at least not the way we think of it. It doesn’t use paper either, or any other surface to which ink might be applied. 3D printing takes printing into a whole new realm—one that actually isn’t new at all. That’s because 3D printing is actually manufacturing. It’s creating a three-dimensional object out of—are you ready?—the “ink” itself.

3D Printing Explained

We generally think of printed documents as two-dimensional, but they’re not. Ink, toner and paper have depth (the third dimension), however small. But imagine if you were to print the same document over and over again, sending the same piece of paper back through the printer. With each pass, another layer of toner or ink would be added to the previous layer. Eventually, after perhaps a hundred or so passes through the printer, you could actually see and feel the printed content rising from the page.

The 3D printing process works in a similar way, laying down layer after thin layer of “ink,” fusing each layer to the last. The “ink” is created either by softening hard material, binding powdered materials or hardening liquid materials. In time, a three-dimensional shape emerges.

The printer’s sophisticated software mathematically “slices” a digital design into thousands upon thousands of thin layers. As the machine begins laying down layers of “ink,” the software directs it to make minute changes to each layer, so that its shape begins to emerge as it gains depth. For this reason, 3D printing is known as an “additive” manufacturing process, as compared with traditional manufacturing processes that are “subtractive.” Seeing the process is like watching a science fiction movie where something emerges from nothing before your eyes.

Several Economic Advantages

Building objects layer upon layer makes it possible to create more complex objects than could be achieved with subtractive manufacturing. 3D printing is faster than traditional manufacturing because no special tooling is needed. It’s economical because there is no waste and it can be done on a small scale.

Implications for Food and Farming

The process is already being used to make jewelry and dental appliances, such as crowns, bridges and implants. There are those who think that similar processes could be used in other industries, such as agriculture and farming. Biofabrication is the concept of replicating animal cells to, in essence, “build” edible meat. Currently PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) is very much on board with the idea. It has sponsored a contest to award $1 million to the first scientist to produce and bring to market in-vitro chicken meat. The deadline is March 4, 2014.

Currently, there is still widespread disagreement over GMO labeling for genetically modified foods. One can only imagine the controversy over “printed meat,” and it remains to be seen whether there is a market.

Seeing Is Believing

An exhibit in London called “3D: printing the future” that opened last October offers 600 3D-printed objects on display—from lighter, more fuel-efficient plane parts to 3D printed prosthetics for carpenter Richard Van As. The exhibit explores remarkable stories like his. After losing four fingers in an accident, Van As couldn’t afford prosthetics. He found plans for a mechanical hand online, then used 3D printing to make his own. Now he hopes to give his device to people in need of fingers and hands all over the world.

Lisa Harouni, cofounder and CEO of Digital Forming, a 3D printing software company, gave a TED Talk in the spring of 2011 explaining how 3D printing will revolutionize manufacturing and change our lives. “[With 3D printing,] we can actually create structures that are more intricate than any other manufacturing technology—or, in fact, are impossible to build in any other way.”

New Valence Robotics, a company based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, was founded by MIT grad student AJ Perez. His company leases easy-to-use 3D printers to schools, where students are taught how to make 3D models of objects using moldable plastic materials. “For those kids in the world that... want to create physical things, this is the pinnacle of bringing their ideas to life,” Perez said. 

3D printing use is expanding. As it becomes easier to scan a physical object and replicate it, there will be repercussions for companies that own patents for products that might be copied. If anyone can make at home what a company spent millions or billions of dollars to research and design, businesses will certainly adjust how they spend their money. Intellectual property law may not be able to offer protections in the same way. Those who create policy and regulations certainly face some challenges ahead.