In the future, children may not be pasting their coloured pictures to the fridge. Instead, parents can breathe life into these drawings by adding a 3D model to their kitchen.
Lately, the hype around 3D printing—the technology used to create these models—has exploded with buzz about its extraordinary capacities and potential to revolutionize industry. 3D printing is an additive manufacturing process that constructs a three-dimensional solid object from a digital model.
However, the process is far from new. In 1983, the same year that the camcorder and the CD were invented, inventor Chuck Hull developed the concept of 3D printing. He founded the company 3D Printing Systems in 1986—though this technology’s real economic and societal impact did not come to life for almost 30 years.
There are two original components that drive Hull’s idea today: the novel method of additive manufacturing, and accessible computerized blueprints.
Additive manufacturing is unique to 3D printers. While traditional manufacturing methods relied on melting, molding, and breaking down large pieces of plastics and metals into a final form, the new additive mode of manufacturing efficiently builds up the desired object using micro-layers of plastics and metals. By taking a blueprint of an object, the 3D printer adds layer after layer using powdered plastics or metals that are solidified via a laser or UV ray into a final form.
Beyond these benefits of efficiency, digital 3D printing is also more accessible to the public and manufacturers than immutable molds and leviathan manufacturing machines. The technology is moving in a direction where the general consumer will have more access to its uses, compared to the past when only high technological engineering firms used these devices. There are even 3D printers available for personal use, going for less than $1,300.
The accessibility of 3D printing technology to the public is exactly what restricted Hull’s technology in the ’80s and has allowed it flourish in the past few years.
Far more in depth than our everyday printers, the three-dimensional systems require special computer-aided design (CAD) software in order to design the object through the computer. In the 1980’s, this kind of software was far more esoteric and less efficient, taking months to generate a single prototype. 3D printing has spent much of its lifetime trucking along in specialized engineering firms.
Today’s more advanced computer technology has expanded the horizons of 3D printing systems. The printers have made their way into numerous branches of industry including medical work, military, and other forms of research.
For instance, because of the printers’ ability to build unique objects from a malleable blueprint, the technology has proved invaluable in building medical apparatuses including hearing aids and orthopedics. Since every patient has slight differences in form and structure—such as in ear size and shape—additive manufacturing has assisted in creating devices like hearing aids by adjusting a blueprint for each patient, making hundreds of plastic molds.
This technology has also been used in the military sector. The VICE videos on YouTube went viral showing functioning assault rifles built through the 3D printing process.
Researchers at McGill have also used the technology to design precise prosthetics that attach to a dancer and play music as the performer moves.
Some critics, however, remain skeptical of the new process’ future in manufacturing. For example, Terry Gou, head of Foxconn electric manufacturing goods, stated to Taiwan media that, “3D printing is a gimmick [….] If it really is that good, then I’ll write my surname ‘Gou’ backwards.” Offering to rewrite the spelling of one’s family name is a bold statement in Chinese culture.
Despite some doubt, 3D printing has surfaced as a novel and promising technology. Where precision and selection are needed, 3D printing has proved an invaluable technology, continuing to expand the horizons of modern manufacturing.