Thursday 27 February, 2014

What Is a 3D Printer and How Does It Work?

Many people had never heard of 3D printers before until some nut made a plastic gun with one and tried to slip it through airport security. Thanks to that would-be terrorist nut-job, the nation’s attention has turned to this revolutionary new technology that can be used in everything from manufacturing and medicine to baking delicious cookies.

A 3D printer allows you to make just about anything out of nearly any kind of material, including ceramic, plastic, metal or stone. If you need a new shelf for your closet, you can take your measurements, design it yourself, and print it out on your printer. You can take pureed food and make new dishes out of it. A Dutch architect announced last year that he was going to build an entire house using a 3D printer. In the future, doctors are hoping they can use living cells from the human body to make artificial organs. As weird as it sounds, this technology is nearly in our grasp.

How 3D Printing Works

A 3D printer works taking your design and creating a series of 2-dimensional slices. These 2D slices are then put together into a real 3D object.

This process is called additive manufacturing. It is different from traditional manufacturing in that traditional methods take an existing object and cut away from it, removing parts until it’s in the form you want. For example, think of wood working. You take a piece of wood and cut at it until you have what you want.

Additive manufacturing takes the opposite approach, adding more to the object until it’s complete.

The Invention of Additive Manufacturing

Additive manufacturing is actually not a new idea at all. Inventor Chuck Hull created and patented the technology in the mid-80s, calling it stereolithography or solid imaging. He patented it when he founded his company, 3D Systems Inc. Unfortunately, at that time 3D printing was not so feasible due to technological limitations. Today, we have the size and speed to actually carry it out.

Is It Printing?

The term ‘printing’ is somewhat misleading at first glance but actually a very appropriate term. It’s hard to imagine a computer printer that makes objects. Of course, it doesn’t plop them out, but adds layer by layer as we mentioned previously.

But upon closer inspection, the process actually is very similar to what your computer printer does. Just look at a printed piece of paper. You’ll notice that the paper isn’t stained with ink. Rather the ink is placed on top of the paper. If you could add millions of layers of this same ink, it would become so thick that it would actually take on a third dimension. The same principle is at work with a 3D printer but on a much bigger scale.

How to Get a 3D Printer

The really cool thing about 3D printers is that they’re not out of reach to the average consumer. Depending on what features you want, you can buy one for $500 to $2,000. They’re a bit tricky to use unless you’re the DIY type. But as the technology improves and consumer demand grows, they’re sure to make them cheaper and easier to use.

Bob Steele

Bob Steele

Bob Steele is an entrepreneur, software developer, marketer, and author living in the Denver metropolitan area. He’s an avid outdoorsman who loves skiing, hiking, fishing, boating, and just plain having fun. His interests include games, space, technology, physics, cooking (well eating actually), economics, business, internationalism, and team sports. With over thirty years of professional consulting experience, Bob has been exposed to many diverse business models and has gained a sensible approach to life. Bob’s company, WaveCentric is focused on commerce, marketing, and entertainment related products.

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