While 3-D printing has been around for some time, primarily with plastics, groundbreaking work is being done to bring the technology, also referred to as "additive manufacturing," into its next phase of development.
The latest examples of this groundbreaking work are breathtaking:
- NASA has successfully tested a part of a rocket engine made through 3-D printing, has plans to send a 3-D printer to the International Space Station in 2014 and is even working with a private company to 3-D print a pizza.
- Companies are developing ways to 3-D "bioprint" human tissue such as blood vessels and organs.
- A startup company in Missouri is developing ways to 3-D bioprint meat.
- A Dutch firm is in the process of 3-D printing an entire house.
The McKinsey Global Institute named 3-D printing as one of 12 disruptive technologies that will transform life, business and the global economy by 2025.
In this year's State of the Union address, President Barack Obama said 3-D printing "has the potential to revolutionize the way we make almost everything." Last year, the Obama administration and the U.S. Department of Defense awarded $30 million to establish the public-private National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Institute (NAMII) in Youngstown, Ohio.
NAMII director Ed Morris called 3-D printing technology this generation's "moon shot moment," in a recent CNBC article.
The world of business and finance is beginning to take note of the emergence of this technology, as well. On Aug. 26, Citigroup analyst Kenneth Wong wrote, according to the Wall Street Journal, that the 3-D printing market "is on the cusp of seeing much broader adoption," which could triple the size of the market within five years.
How does 3-D printing work?
Much like many of the technological developments of the 21st Century, the technology that goes into 3-D printing is highly complex, but in practice, the simplicity of its use is revealed.
These devices manufacture – or print – objects from the bottom up, one ultra-thin layer of material at a time.
Whereas objects created through conventional manufacturing are often created through "subtracting" from a larger raw material, additive manufacturing involves taking raw materials and feeding them through a 3-D printer to then create an object comprised of that material. There's no excess material, no need for molding and it is 100 percent customizable for each object that is printed.
While groundbreaking work on 3-D printing is being done in a variety of fields, plastics are far and away the most common 3-D printed material. Several 3-D printers used to print plastic objects are in use at the Milwaukee Makerspace, a facility in the city's Bay View neighborhood where members pool together tools and talents to make a wide variety of different things. There, a monthly 3-D printing meet-up is held for anyone interested in learning more about the technology and how it can be used.
The meet-up is co-organized by Jesse DePinto, founder and CEO of 3-D scanning startup company Voxel Metric, and Pete Prodoehl, communications director on the board of directors for the Milwaukee Makerspace, who's "day job" is vice president of interactive media at Pewaukee-based Z2 Marketing (Prodoehl also has run a technology-focused blog – Rasterweb – since 1997).
DePinto said the meet-up group took off after this year's State of the Union address and now has nearly 150 members. He said the response to people seeing how 3-D printing works for the first time is inspiring.
"You can just see their minds turning with ideas after ideas on how this can improve their life, their business, how they can start a company, etc.," he said.
Both Prodoehl and DePinto have been actively engaged with 3-D printing technology for several years, and said that recently, the process has gotten easier, the quality has gone up, and the cost has gone down.
By understanding how the smaller, consumer market 3-D printers work, you can understand the larger, more ambitious 3-D printing projects that could be achieved on a larger scale, Prodoehl said.
The 3-D printing process begins on a computer screen.
"You have a 3-D model on the computer, and what you have to do is convert that into layers," said DePinto. "We call that 'slicing it,' because you're technically slicing it into layers. Each one of those layers has a code associated with it that the printer can view, and move its head in that pattern, and then it moves up and does the next layer, and so on."
"Basically, you hit print just like you print paper," said Prodoehl. "It takes a little longer – it takes hours sometimes – but the computer sends commands to (the 3-D printer) and it runs it."
Digital designs and models can be created from scratch – something Prodoehl said he does frequently on his own – or downloaded from websites such as Thingiverse.com or other online sites.
"Thingiverse.com is a repository of objects that MakerBot had launched," said Prodoehl. "There's thousands and thousands of things you can download from Thingiverse. You can go on there now, click-click-click, download it, put it in the software and print, and you've got something there. It's like the world of Star Trek. It's a little more than just push a button – you have to download and print – but the distributed nature of it is disruptive."
In a certain sense, the online availability of these digital designs for 3-D printed objects is a way to bring objects from the digital world to the physical world. As Thingiverse gets more populated, designs and models will get to the point where users won't have to design anything from scratch, Prodoehl said.
"Just think of anything you download today – songs, videos, photos, etc.," said Prodoehl. "The 3-D catalogue is just going to grow and grow."
This, however, speaks to one of the major challenges 3-D printing faces as it continues to develop – copyright, which, by most indications, currently exists in a gray area. But not unlike the early days of the Internet, many of the early adopters of 3-D printing technology are "die-hard open source people," said Prodoehl.
The opportunity in this regard, he said, is in the ability to distribute products through file sharing.
"You can essentially distribute products without shipping, mass production, anything like that," said Prodoehl. "You can essentially distribute an object anywhere by putting the design or model online so anyone can just 'click, download, print.'"
Once the digital design and the 3-D slicing are completed, the specifications are selected, and the print button is clicked, the 3-D printer gets to work.
"What happens is there's a filament in the back (of the printer) where the material starts," said DePinto, "(The filament) feeds up through a tube, heats up, and comes out through a nozzle like a hot glue gun."
DePinto said these ultra-thin layers of plastic that are drawn out through the nozzle are "about a tenth to a third of a millimeter."
A heated platform is raised to begin the process, and it gradually descends as the printer builds up the object, layer by layer, until the object is printed.
Another interesting feature of 3-D printers is their ability to print "support structures" during the printing process, said DePinto.
"Imagine you're printing a bridge," he said. "You have two poles, and you have the bridge from one pole to the other and you have the same effects of gravity that a normal bridge has, so you have to have multiple supports along the way to actually print something suspended in air."
Another interesting aspect of 3-D printed objects is the material inside of them – infill, a light weight material that resembles the look of a honeycomb. Infill makes it so the object is not solid all the way through, but is strong enough to support the printed structure.
This ability to 3-D print something at a lighter weight by using infill is allowing aerospace and automotive engineers to reduce the weight of planes and vehicles, increasing their fuel efficiencies, said DePinto.
3-D printing is also making a significant disruption in the medical industry, said DePinto, whose company, Voxel Metric, was spun off from his previous startup, 3-D Creations, in May of this year.
"We design and sell 3-D scanners for medical applications such as prosthetics and orthotics to make the measuring process easier," he said.
3-D scanning is another vital aspect of the technology and one that has developed rapidly in recent years, as well. DePinto said there are 3-D scanning smart phone apps that exist, but are somewhat limited in their quality. But the next step from there, he said, "is using an Xbox Kinect. There's tons of software online that you can use to basically turn an Xbox Kinect into a 3-D scanner. When the Kinect came out, it was revolutionary for that reason; it's basically now a mass-produced 3-D scanner, so 3-D scanners are cheaper now than they ever have been in the past."
DePinto and Prodoehl said 3-D printing also can be used to print items to repair household objects or print replacement parts for things that no longer exist.
According to the McKinsey Global Institute report, "Until now, 3-D printing has largely been used by product designers and hobbyists and for a few select manufacturing applications. However, the performance of additive manufacturing machinery is improving, the range of materials is expanding, and prices (for both printers and materials) are declining rapidly — bringing 3-D printing to a point where it could see rapid adoption by consumers and even for more manufacturing uses. With 3-D printing, an idea can go directly from a 3-D design file to a finished part or product, potentially skipping many traditional manufacturing steps. Importantly, 3-D printing enables on-demand production, which has interesting implications for supply chains and for stocking spare parts — a major cost for manufacturers. 3-D printing can also reduce the amount of material wasted in manufacturing and create objects that are difficult or impossible to produce with traditional techniques. Scientists have even 'bioprinted' organs, using an inkjet printing technique to layer human stem cells along with supporting scaffolding."