It’s been everywhere in the last few months, every news site, tech forum and gadget geek has been talking about it. From the controversial to the amazing, 3D printing has been on everyone’s mind. But what is 3D printing, how does it work and what can you make with your own 3D printer?
What is 3D printing?
Simply put, 3D printing is very much like the printing you do at home with your ordinary ink cartridges and inkjet printer. You create a digital file of the object you want, press print and watch the printer create the thing you designed right in front of you. You can make pretty much anything with a 3D printer using a variety of materials, from fancy chocolate cakes to plastic toys, metal parts and ceramics.
While it may seem like something relatively new, 3D printing has been around since 1984 and has been used in the manufacturing and aerospace industries to create workable prototypes at a fraction of the cost. Due to significant price drops, 3D printing has been made available to the average user.
How does it work?
It all starts with designing the item you want on a computer using design software like CAD or Google’s SketchUp, or you can simply download something that’s already been designed from sites like Thingiverse.
These programmes will take your digital model and ‘slice’ it into hundreds (or even thousands) of horizontal slices. The printer will then create your object, layer by layer from the bottom up, using whichever material you chose. These layers are fused together to form a solid object. Each layer can be extremely complex and can include moving parts so you could, theoretically, print a working bicycle.
What can you make?
With a 3D printer and the right software, you can pretty much make whatever you want, given enough time and the right materials. 3D printing has been used to create car parts, fashion accessories, customised smartphone cases, medical equipment and more.
Doctors are even playing with the possibility of custom printing organs using cells taken from the person who needs the organ.
And that seems to be the way of the future, completely customisable objects, like shoes made specifically for the dimensions of your feet, artificial limbs designed to fit each person individually. You could also move small scale manufacturing into the home, no more having to wait while a supplier tries to find that spare part for your washing machine. You could just print it at home.
3D printing does have its limitations, though. While the printers themselves are relatively cheap (with the cheapest selling for about R1 000, not including the cost of getting it to South Africa and the materials needed to print in 3D), the cost per item you print will still be higher than a mass produced item.
So, for now, 3D printing remains firmly in the hands of DIY enthusiasts, hobbyists and big manufacturers. It seems that despite all the hype, 3D printing is not yet ready for everyday use, but it seems that the future of home 3D printing is not too far off.