Since 2009 3D printing has been in a steady upmarch. What was once considered whimsical thinking or geek brain sparks has now made its way from industrial manufacturing into mainstream use and the consumer 3D printing market has taken off like wildfire. What once was an expensive process suddenly became available at a cost within the average consumer’s reach.
3D printing has actually been around for about 30 years. In 1983 an enterprising engineer named Chuck Hull invented the first 3D printing process and called it ‘stereo lithography’ which he defined as ‘a method and apparatus for making solid objects by successively “printing” thin layers of a liquid ultraviolet curable material one on top of the other’. He went on to found the company 3D Systems, expanded his technique and built the foundation of what we now know today as additive manufacturing (AM) or 3D printing. From then on 3D printing began the road trip to ever-expanding possibilities and the technique is now applied in the wildest ways imaginable.
Simply put, 3D printing is an additive manufacturing process that creates a physical object from a blueprint in the form of a digital design file. This design file is sliced into thin layers which are then sent to the 3D printer. There are different 3D printing technologies and materials you can print with, but all are based on the same principle: a digital model is turned into a solid three-dimensional physical object by adding material layer by layer. It all starts with the creation of a 3D model in your computer. This could be done with a CAD (Computer Aided Design) program, 3D modelling software or based on data generated with a 3D scanner. 3D modelling software is often custom made to suit the functions of the user’s industry or cater to specific interests. There are software applications on the market for industrial manufacturing, aerospace or transportation, furniture design, bio or medical labs, fabrics and fashion and many others.
For the amateur or hobbyist there are even free apps available like Tinkercad which is great for beginners and comes with tutorials. Tinkercad works in browsers that support WebGL, for instance Google Chrome. Once you have created a 3D model, the next step is to prepare it for printing. You can buy a pre-assembled 3D printer or a cheap DYI 3D printer kit on Amazon or send your file to a 3D printing service to get your object printed. 3D printers come in a dizzying array from large industrial machines that use a laser to selectively melt metal powder at high temperatures to desktop printers that melt a plastic material and lay it down onto a print platform.
3D printing materials vary by printer type, ranging from plastics and polymers to metals and alloys, concrete, ceramics, paper and some foodstuffs like vegetables and chocolate. What can you print with it? Just about anything you can think of. 3D printing is being used in many industries. For instance, the automotive, aviation and aerospace sectors use 3D to produce parts, tools and interior elements. Amateurs and vintage car enthusiasts print parts to restore old cars, even parts that have been out of production for decades.
School and educational institutions were early adopters of the 3D technology. Architects and manufacturers have long used 3D printers in their design process to create scale models and prototypes because they can be made cheaper and much faster and corrections or improvements can be made instantly. Construction companies can even print houses by printing all the parts are separately and assemble them onsite. A project by Chinese company WinSun uses recyclable materials to print houses for $4,800 dollars per unit.
Medical and dental labs are producing all sorts of designs for prosthetics and implants, even 3D printing pens for orthopaedic surgery. Other examples of 3D printing would include reconstructing fossils inpalaeontology, replicating ancient artefacts in archaeology, reconstructing bones and body parts in forensic pathology and reconstructing heavily damaged evidence acquired from crime scene investigations. You can print stage props, furniture, lighting fixtures, toys, trinkets, home decorations and jewellery. And fill your wardrobe with fashions of your own design. There are several fashion websites where users can design their own garment and have it printed, fitted and delivered in just a few clicks. How about printing a spare house key? You can easily do this from a JPEG file.
What about that cheese? 3D printing invaded the food industry a long time ago. Commercial kitchens, bakeries, and confectionaries are using 3D food printers to save time and effort. Nursery homes and hospitals can print purees and mush-like foods for their patients. Just think what NASA can do with space-printed food stuffs.
3D food printers have special pressurised tanks to extrude the food material which is in the form of liquid, paste or powdered food as a printing medium. They can print
noodles, pizza, stuffed pasta, quiche, cake, chocolate, cake, and simple pastries. Earlier this year a team of scientist in an Irish university have actually printed cheese. The downer is that they started with a commercially available processed cheese. While the experiment proved their point, it looks less than impressive. So for the moment, you may want to stick with the imported camembert.
Are you ready to print, cook and serve your food? Maybe like the microwave in its early days, the 3D kitchen robot will march into your life and take your kitchen by storm. If you want to try your hand at 3D printing but are stymied or flummoxed by the learning process, you can –as always- get plenty help from online classes, YouTube tutorials and the ever-present 3D Printing for Dummies. To help print your creations, you can take them to one of several Bali based 3D printing shops. Yes, 3D printing has come to Bali!
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