Imagine a future where a device connected to your computer would be able to print a solid object. A future where tangible as well as intangible goods could be shipped over through the Internet. This future would be able to witness everyday atomization of things into hard reality.
All this might seem like something of distant future or something plucked from Star Trek. Something that will make 007 tech a household presence.
3D printer which presents the manufacturing industry with digital processing and control has its origins dating back to 1980s or rather mid 1970s when the inkjet printers were invented. By 1984, various advances and adaptations in the technology took things from printing ink to printing with materials. Charles Hull, cofounder of 3D systems invented stereo lithography, which enabled printing of tangible goods from digital data. 3D printers instead of ink, go about depositing material in successive layers to create physical objects from a digital file.
3D printing also called additive manufacturing takes virtual blueprints from a CAD or animation software and then slices these images into digital cross-sections which are used as a guideline by the printer. Depending on the machine, a binding material is used to deposit on the platform until material binding is complete and 3D object has been printed. Between the CAD animation and printing, there is an interface format called STL file which approximates the shape of the object in as triangular facets. To perform a print the machine reads the STL file and then lays down virtual layers which fuse or join automatically giving a final shape. This of pipeline of workflow enables it to print virtually any shape or geometry. Typical thickness is around 100 micrometer though some devices like Object convex or 3D systems can go up to 16 micrometers. Though print produced size is enough, often oversized versions are made which then undergo some removal for extra precision. Another 3D printing technology based on the selective solidification of a tank of liquid — or ‘vat polymerization’ — is DLP projection. This uses a projector to solidify object layers one complete cross-section at a time, rather than using a laser to trace them out.
Besides these several new technologies pertaining to various specifications and materials have been developed and are under use.
While there are numerous players in this field, two of the largest are 3D systems and Stratasys. Both these companies have a market capitalization of around $3 billion. Other notable publicly traded companies are Archam, Exone known for metal and sand printers and Organovo which specializes in bioprinting. Prices for most commercial/industrial 3D printers tend to start in the range of ten-to-twenty thousand dollar bracket and spiral upwards into the hundreds of thousands of dollars for very-high-end machines that can build fully-dense metal parts. Although some desktop models are on the market, most commercial 3D printers are usually fairly bulky and often floor-standing. With above prices noted, it is possible for lone designers and individuals to upload their designs online and obtain high end printouts.
Home Enthusiasts with high DIY interests can start 3D printing themselves, with help of the two open source projects Fab@Home and RepRep, both the initiatives revolve around the online web community, which shares its designs. Besides these one can buy assembling kits such as RapMan 3.1D from BitsFromBytes.com for something around $795. The pre-installed ones range from $2000 onwards. But one of the coolest printers is the UP! Personal Portable Printer, which doesn’t need any calibration from user and can be set up running in 15 minutes.
Current applications for 3D printing include testing of critical components before committing on mass production. The technology has also been put to use by Archaeologists and Medical sciences in the field of bone study. Artificial objects similar to bones are printed and examined, providing an insight earlier not possible.
Whilst most 3D printers are currently used for prototyping and in pre-production domain. Use of 3D printing to manufacture end-use parts has started to pick up popularly known as Direct Digital Manufacturing (DDM). As Fortus explains, for low-volume manufacturing DDM is most cost-effective. It is simpler than having to pay and wait for machining or tooling with on-the-fly design changes and just-in-time inventory being possible. For example their customers Klock Werks Kustom Cycles have built a one-of-a-kind motorcycles using a Fortus 3D printer to directly digitally manufacture some of their required custom parts.
Freedom of Creation (recently acquired by 3D Systems) is another company making end use products. Their range of incredible, designer 3D printed products includes lighting, furniture, trays, bags and jewelry. In a similar vein, two companies Make Eyewear and Protos Eyewear are now manufacturing designer sunglasses using 3D printers. Many pundits believe, 3D printing has got a huge role to play in the fashion industry.
Whether or not they arrive at homes, 3D printers have many promising areas of potential future application. They may be used to output spare parts for pretty much anything. This would mean, companies would prefer to make critical companies as and when required. NASA has already tested a 3D printer on the International Space Station, and recently announced its requirement for a high resolution 3D printer to produce spacecraft parts during deep space missions.
With several key patents set to expire in 2014, the market for this technology is expected to erupt. It is also expected to find several new areas, with new industries set to come just because of it. With the technology set to getting cheap, sky is the limit.