A future with 3D printing

I first heard about 3D printing in 2009, at a locative media workshop in Delhi conducted by artist Matt Kenyon. At the time I was blown away by the idea, especially of the RepRap machine – an open source desktop 3D printer capable of replicating itself by printing all of the plastic parts necessary to build one. It seemed to me something straight out of a Borges story, as so many technologies are. Today however, the conversation about 3D printing and changes it is going to make in manufacturing is alive and thriving. There is the 3D printer that prints chocolate, the man who printed an AK47, the 83-year-old who had his jaw replaced by a 3D-printed mandible, and of course there is a need to relook at copy right and patent laws in relation to 3D printing.

What is 3D printing? 3D printing is a process by which, a 3D printer can read a blueprint of an object, and build it by adding layer upon layer of material, a process commonly known as ‘additive manufacturing’. There are also 3D scanners that allow you to scan an object, generate a CAD file to create a replicable object.

Many believe that the 3D revolution can transform the relationship between the developed world and emerging economies, with manufacturing processes shifting from cheaper options in the emerging world back to the developed world. With the price of 3D printers falling to as little as $500, many others believe that the 3D printing revolution will enter individual homes. In an interview with Wired writer David Rowan, Lisa Harouni of Digital Forming, talks about 3D printing giving rise to bespoke manufacturing.

This technology has been around for 20 years, but it’s about to hit the public in a big way….It’s going to affect every facet of life — letting you manufacture bespoke products on demand that can be customised for an individual, and giving designers the freedom to make complex parts with less waste of material and a lower carbon footprint because it’s made locally. If, let’s say you have guests coming for dinner but you realise you don’t have enough plates, you’ll be able to go online and download products to your home printer like you do music today. But this technology can also custom-manufacture body parts, medical devices, lifestyle goods — anything we use to express ourselves, from home furnishings to personalised iPhone covers. It means you can create bespoke products en masse.

Tech writer, Ryan Whitwam, has another view. According to him the 3D printing revolution won’t happen in our garages but at local professional 3D printers or hardware stores.

If you look at the kinds of objects being printed in these low-cost 3D printers you will see art projects, semi-professional design work, and knickknacks. Printing an MP3 player shaped like a cassette tape might be neat (I think so), but it’s not an example of practical at-home use….at-home 3D printing will remain the domain of enthusiasts. Most people will be perfectly happy to buy items that were printed elsewhere with higher quality machinery than they themselves have the desire or inclination to run.

Are the likely uses of 3D printing, such as spare parts and artistry, killer use cases for the average consumer? Time will tell. Till then, we have Thomas Thwaites who built a toaster, from scratch – beginning by mining the raw materials and ending with a product that can sell at Argos.

About Namrata Mehta

Namrata Mehta or @littlenemrut, is Director of Innovation at the Center for Knowledge Societies, New Delhi. She has an undergraduate degree in Sociology from Delhi University, and a postgraduate diploma in Experimental Media Arts, from Srishti School of Art, Design and Technology, Bangalore.
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3 Responses to A future with 3D printing

  1. Varun says:

    Is 3D printing possible with metals like brass / steel. Can we make for example… door handles with 3D printing?

  2. Namrata says:

    Hi Varun,

    I don’t know much about the technicalities of 3D printing (I’ve been itching to try it first hand), but from everything I’ve read, while most 3D printers use forms of plastics (some that are biodegradable) there is a lot of progress that has been made with metal as well (read here http://3dprinting.com/materials/metal/3d-printing-metal/), so I am pretty sure you can print a door handle.

    What I am particularly interested in is 3D printing ceramics.

    Check out these guys (http://www.makerbot.com) for what’s possible, in my opinion they are the pioneers.

    Hope this helps,

  3. IgnorantAbout3dPrinting says:

    All low cost (read hobby) 3D printers use plastics, and will do for the foreseeable future. You CAN print metals, but instead of using temperature to melt the material (i.e. plastic) metal printers use metal powder which is melted with a laser (it’s called Direct Metal Laser Sintering or DMLS). There is a list of materials on the wiki page for DMLS and brass doesn’t seem to be on there but steel is available. Wiki link: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Direct_metal_laser_sintering

    But it’s really expensive and probably won’t become cheaper any time soon (big lasers cost big money). What you can do is use a plastic based printer to create a pattern and then use lost plastic casting (instead of lost wax) to get your castings. Procedure documented here: http://3dtopo.com/lostPLA/.

    You got to be careful cause most plastic printers leave horizontal lines due to the nature of the printing so the walls won’t be completely smooth, but I guess you could buff that away. Or maybe try smoothening PLA (http://www.protoparadigm.com/blog/2013/06/vapor-smoothing-and-polishing-pla-with-tetrahydrofuran-thf/) but I have never tried it so… well you got to just try it.

    Now, ceramics. There are two ways I think you could do this. You can use powder based printers which use a powder and a binder. I have heard of gypsum powders but you could probably use other ceramics. This binder could be super glue (i think?) or other mixtures. There is some development for an open source powder printer (http://pwdr.github.io/) but it really hasn’t gained much traction. Early days still. They claim to be able to print loads of material with a binder of alcohol and water. Shapeways does sandstone as well in a similar printer (http://www.shapeways.com/materials/sandstone).

    The other way is to use the current hobby printers with a modified extruder to print a slurry of some sort. Like this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x8ILdNDrXrc and: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N1LF14QhNyY. People print all sorts of things with modified extruders from sugar to chocolate to play doh! A bit of experimentation might be required but its probably doable. The advantage to using a slurry as opposed to a binder like super glue is that you can probably fire a slurry, not so sure about super glue.

    As for makerbot. Well, they are good at selling 3d printers. But they have lagged in ‘technology’ to the reprap community. Almost all the makerbot innovations came directly from the community and even now a lot of makerbot technology is benefited by community driven development. Though they did create thingiverse, even that is sometimes a bit iffy. There are other manufacturers of 3d printers who are better supported and integrated into the community like lulzbot, makertoolworks and trinity labs (though there are many more!). I probably said community WAY to often in this paragraph, but the reprap people have just been amazing at innovating and bringing 3d printer quality to another level (http://blog.reprap.org/2011/09/tipping-point-of-print-quality-open.html). And more importantly, ever since the FDM patents ran out these guys have liberated 3d printing for the masses.

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