3D Printing: How Does This All Work?

MVI 3D printingI recently read where one of the big box home improvement stores is now selling 3D printers both online and at select stores. Initially, I was surprised that they felt this would be something that would appeal to their “Do It Yourself” market. But as I continued reading, I understood just how amazing this new innovation is. You see, just this past weekend one of the little plastic shelf pins in my pantry broke. Not wanting to head to the hardware store, I searched all over the house and garage for a suitable replacement, and finally ended up fixing the situation with a giant screw. It’s ugly, but it does a good job stabilizing the shelf. Imagine, though, if I had previously purchased a MakerBot Replicator. Using one of my intact pins as a model, I could have easily generated a replacement. Far more attractive than that screw, perfectly matched to the others, and all without leaving the house!

For a price tag of about $1500, a 3D printer can now be acquired and used to start manufacturing needed items right at home from a digital image. Also known as solid imaging and additive manufacturing, the process was invented back in 1983 by Chuck Hull, utilizing the technique he called stereolithography. Though the innovation has evolved over the years, the end result is still the same; 3D printing allows a three-dimensional solid object to be made from a digital design. Here is a general overview of how it works:

The intended item (in my case a small plastic shelf pin) is layed out using a scanner, animation modeling software and/or computer aided design. The software then creates a virtual blueprint of the object, divided into digital cross-sections. These cross sections are paper thin—typically between .1 and .2 mm thick. Next, the blueprint is sent to the printer for “assembly.” Depending on the type of 3D printer, many different types of materials can be used to “print” the item, including plastics, metal, rubber, and a hundred different other additives. One by one the very thin layers are added to the printer’s platform, working bottom to top. The layers are automatically fused together until, finally, a single three-dimensional item is created in DPI resolution. For a quick demonstration, check out this video by Computerworld.

3D printing is poised to revolutionize countless industries. Medical professionals have already begun using the technology to create implants, hearing aids, custom prosthetics, and a number of other things. China built a giant 3D printer capable of cranking out up to 10 small houses per day. Even the food industry is getting in on the action. By using sugar or chocolate, a number of sweets are being created, including these delightfully shaped sugar cubes.

For a complete history of Chuck Hull and his miraculous invention, check out his company website.