3D printing technology has been around since the 80’s, with the first working machine built by Chuck Hall of 3D Systems Corp in 1984. The popularity of 3D printing has only recently skyrocketed as a leading new technology in the field of design and personal enthusiasts. It makes you think back to the days of the Star Trek Replicator and its power to create objects from virtually nothing, well, your dreams are finally coming true. Since 2001, there has been a large increase in sales of this new craze and there has been no stopping it. In 2012, according to Wholers Associates, the market for these machines estimated an approximate $2.2 billion worldwide, climbing a staggering 29% from 2011.
3D printing or “desktop fabrication” is the process of creating a solid object from a digital model using the additive process. It starts just like any design project, with a design of the object that is going to be “printed.” In this case, you have 3D models created in 3D software that takes these models and slices them into digital cross-sections, telling the machine what to print. Instead of machining them out of a block of material (subtractive process), it prints thousands of tiny layers on top of tiny layers of material to form your object (additive process). These printers can use many types of metal, plastic, glass, and even gold and silver.
What can it be used for?
The uses of these machines are astronomical, pun intended. NASA has recently been experimenting with 3D printing to create replacement parts while in the space station. This may be a solution to the problem of spare parts, because it allows them to rethink and redesign new parts as they need them. Instead of them shelling out half a billion dollars for a launch into space, they can create the parts they need right on the spot. Not only is NASA experimenting with this technology, but it is already being used in many fields, such as architecture, construction, industrial design, automotive, aerospace, military, engineering, civil engineering, dental and medical industries, biotech (human tissue replacement), fashion, footwear, jewelry, eyewear, education, geographic information systems and food. It is becoming mass appeal in all industries, it allows companies to test concepts and cut on assembly costs due to the printer printing already assembled products.
3D printing has become increasingly popular as a hobby for just your average Joe, in addition to its mass appeal in the industrial marketplace. You can create your own printing device by purchasing parts or you can purchase a basic machine for use in your home for $500 to $2000. This may sound like a little too much for the average person, but imagine the money it could save you by printing things like coffee cups, utensils, measuring spoons, clothes hangers, lamps, shower heads and pretty much anything else you can imagine for household use. Instead of having to run to the store, you can just print it. You can even find already designed, ready for print items by the thousands on websites like Thingverse. It is said that a 3D printer could pay for itself within a year or so depending on how actively it is used.
This may seem impractical or a waste of time, but the technology is there and it is growing fast. People once said that the personal computer was a waste of time. Ken Olson, president, chairman and founder of Digital Equipment Corp said, “There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home.” Thomas Watson, chairman of IBM said, “I think there is a world market for maybe five computers.” So don’t let the speculation deter you from this amazing innovation, and let’s wait and see where this increasingly popular technology takes us.
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