By now, many of you have probably heard about his AMAZING, SCIENCE RE-DEFINING, SUPER TECHNOLOGY known as 3D PRINTING! It’s PRINTING, but in 3D!!!! ZOMG!!!! But how many of you out there can really grasp what it’s all about? How far has this technology come? If it has been around for years (which it has), why is it coming to the public’s eye just now? In this blog post, I’ll share what I know, what I’ve done, where it’s at, and where I see it going.
Don’t worry, I’ll include plenty of Wikipedia links to help explain things!
WHAT I KNOW
3D Printing is pretty cool, there’s no way around that. It’s actually the latest in what could be considered “CNC MACHINING“, with CNC meaning “Computer Numeric Control”, which is a modern adaptation of “Numeric Control”.
Let’s explore this process before heading in to this new craze. CNC Machining (or simply just “CNC”) is a manufacturing method in which a CAD (Computer Aided Design) Technician or Engineer creates a drawing/blueprint/schematic of some solid part to be manufactured, such as a gear, boiler plate, cam, bushing, or other mechanical part. The part is drawn with a computer program such as Solidworks, Sketchup, PTC Creo, AutoDesk Inventor, or any other 3D Modeling programs available.
From the program, the Technician is able to send the information of the part over to a CNC Mill/Lathe/Saw/Waterjet machine. Being that it is handled as a computer file, the information can be transmitted in any electronic fashion; over a network, email, jump drive, SD card, CD, DVD, any method that any electronic file is transported. Once the computer code generated from the Technician’s computer is received by the CNC machine, it then begins to actually cut the stock material in a way as described by the Technician. For more clarity, please see the video below.
In this case, we see a CNC Mill in action. In the beginning of the video, you can see that we begin with a solid chunk of stock material. The stock is cut to a predetermined size and shape so that the machine can perform the machining accurately. The stock is secured on a moving platform within a pair of vice jaws. Through the process, you can see the drill bit rise and lower while the bottom platform moves front to back and side to side. In technical terms, the drill moves along the Z axis while the stock moves along the X and Y.
While CNC Mills are great, what if you wanted to produce a cylindrical object? Working with a machine designed to hold rectangular stock with a cutting device that only moves in one direction could prove to be quite problematic. In these cases, there are also plenty of CNC Lathes available, as seen below:
And just like that, as many chess pieces as you’ve got stock for!
As you can see, both of these processes can be highly efficient for making routine and repetitive parts and pieces accurately and precisely. But, both of them have definite physical constraints. They can only make 1 piece at a time. Once all the pieces are made, you still need an additional robot or HUMAN (GASP!) to assemble the parts. When all the parts are assembled, you have the possibility of loose screws, faulty welds, mis-aligned construction, etc. Also, it is difficult to make complex and curved surfaces. For some more advanced methods, a manufacturer would have to resort to other practices such as Molding, which would require first the creation of the mold itself before the part could be manufactured.
WHAT I’VE DONE
This, my dear readers, is where 3D Printing shines. First a video:
As you can see, the level of complexity attainable by a 3D Printer such as this is limited only by your imagination. Note that this process requires no vice jaws nor calipers to keep the “stock” in place. It is created by adhering powdered material into a form as described by the creator. Aspects of the part can be as intricate as desired, since the part as a whole is held in place by the surrounding material.
Ofcourse, not all creations need to be so complex. Below is a pic of a part that i created while I was in college:
As you can see in the pic, it is a simple piece done for educational purposes. For this piece, it is constructed of cornstarch for the base material and a glucose solution for the binder. It was then dusted off, glazed and hardened in an oven. The notebook paper is included for scale. You can see a few cracks in the top where a co-worker clumisly dropped it and I had to give it a few “Super-Glue Welds”. The great thing about this process, especially in an educational setting, is that the entire process is completely non-toxic. Also, the resources are cheap!
There’s also other methods where the printer will “print” the material much like an inkjet printer applies ink to paper. This video shows a man printing several wrenches of varying sizes simultaneously because…..because why not?
WHERE IT’S AT
and THAT brings us to our next discussion point. The most significant aspect about 3D Printing today is the cost, or more precisely the dropping cost of the printers themselves. I see no need to emphasize the gigantic price tags that industrial CNC machinery swing. They are huge, costly to operate and maintain, and cumbersome to fix. The idea of a civilian purchase has been essentially ridiculous until recent years. As with all technology, the existing continuously gets upgrades, thus creating a generation of obsolete machines. These machines continue to get passed down to smaller and smaller consumers as they lose value and relative power. Eventually, people begin to get good at taking these bad-boys apart and back together again, thus figuring out ways to improve their design on their own and replicating them in a cheaper fashion. The same process happens with every technology.
Once the right person gets ahold of it, they start to do a little Reverse Engineering and create their own version of it, and VIOLA! We have 3D Printers for the Common Citizen! Now, anyone with an internet connection can take a look through Amazon and see what’s out there. Yes, seriously, AMAZON.COM sells 3D Printers!
WHERE I SEE IT GOING
3D Printing technology has hit big in ways that may not be apparent yet to non-techies. In a recent article, it is discussed in detail how much time (and thus money) 3D Printing has saved companies for manufacturing goods, and also test and develop products with Rapid Prototyping. There have also been breakthroughs in medicine where doctors have been able to print ORGANS with the aid of Stem Cells.
Still, my belief is that the proliferation of 3D Printing is ultimately going in a completely different direction. First, consider this: Last month it was announced that Makerbot and Ouya now have a partnership where you can print your own Ouya at home. (Warning: we are about to go in to some seriously technical ideas) For those not in the indie-video gaming culture, the “Ouya” is a gaming console, much like the Xbox 360, Playstation 3, or Nintendo Wii. The difference being is that the Ouya is what is called “Open Source“, meaning that they welcome people to hack/augment/modify the internal code and programming. On their Kickstarter page, the creators of Ouya flat-out tell hackers to physically open up their console and play around with even the physical pieces of it! How this agreement works is that when you have a Makerbot, you can download the 3D Model of the Ouya console and print it at home. Yes, you “download” and console and “print it” at your convenience using the Makerbot software. You will still need the hardware components, so you can’t download and print a fully functional console, unfortunately.
Here’s the thing: once you have downloaded the model, why not modify it? Change the shape, the color. Keep the internal dimensions constant so the hardware still fits where it has to, by why not make it make it in the shape of your favorite gaming hero? For example, print it out in the shape of a Halo Spartan Helmet, or a rough representation of your dog sleeping, a beer bottle, or heck, in the shape of a competitor’s console! As long as you can create it in the modeling software, it can be created in the printer!
And THAT is where I see 3D Printing going. Consumers having their own printer at home, and rather than having something shipped to them or purchased at a store, they’ll be able to download a digital model and print it at home. Right now the Makerbot printers are based on PLA or ABS plastics, but give it time and we will see them handle other materials. Imagine printing various home furnishings, flatware, baskets, tools, containers. Can’t find the appropriate coupling? Measure up what needs to be mated and print it out! Cracked the case on an electronic device? Replicate it as best you can and print a new one! Once they are created in a 3D Model, the possibilities are as limited as your imagination and your supply of stock material!
There, I said it. This is why 3D Printing has been catapulted in to the headlines, not because of the endless imaginative possibilities. Every time there’s another news article about some one printing a gun or gun parts at home a friend or family member runs to me to let me know that evil-doers are afoot. Being that this topic is likely to spark a highly charged and opinionated political debate with neither side yielding ground, here’s all I will say about it: The parts created and manufactured on a 3D Printing machine are of the individual’s creation, not the printer nor the printer’s manufacturer. A 3D Printer is simply, as I stated in the very beginning of this post, the latest step in CNC Machining. Whatever is and has been possible on a traditional machine is possible on a 3D Printer, only easier and more imaginative.
So now that I’ve sent your mind whirling with all that is now possible with modern science and technology, I’ll leave you with one last mind bend. Imagine what you could do if all you needed to do was take a bunch of pictures of a thing, and it would automatically be stitched together in to a computer model……. Wanna see?