Story by Jacob Gilmore
Printing is an important process that has provided a foundation for our modern culture. With the advent of the printing press, books that were previously expensive and tedious to copy could be mass-produced quickly at low prices.
Modern printers and word processors have made it possible to quickly print an electronic image onto a paper background. No hardcopy original is necessary.
With digital press printing, a computer pre-image is sent to the printer, which then takes the electronic instructions and places a material (usually ink) down on a flat surface (usually paper).
3D printing, first invented in 1984 by Charles Hull, is based on a similar concept.
A computer file sends instructions to a 3D printer, which uses a variety of additive methods to create a 3D object.
Each new layer is placed on top of the last layer. One method, Inkjet printing, produces a full color 3D prototype using a special kind of ink supported with wax.
In another method, Lamination, the printer cuts layers out of adhesive paper and sticks them on top of each other. Many other techniques involve using a laser to selectively fuse powders together layer by layer either through a process that sticks particles to a base or by actually selectively melting the powder onto the base.
There are many benefits of 3D printers. In the future, 3D printers might be used domestically to make small tools, like plastic wrenches, that homeowners might normally have to leave the house to purchase.
Alternatively, 3D printers could be used by startups to cheaply produce small quantities of a product, eliminating the economies of scale that make it cheaper to produce goods at high volumes.
“It might just be enough to help bring manufacturing jobs back to America,” said first-year Ben Pritchard.
“Doctors can make temporary organs and save lives,” said first-year Stefan Carlson.
And this is true, due to work being done in bioprinting, where one layer of living cells is placed onto another. There is a lot of work being done with this concept, and according to an ABC article, dental labs are using 3D printing to produce custom crowns in under an hour.
“Researchers can rapidly produce prototypes, making it easier to do things like produce complicated 3D models,” said first-year Nathan Cashman.
“My genetics professor used a 3D printer to make a model of DNA the other day,” said junior Matt Bentz.
Technology can be used for good or ill, however.
“I think some people might use 3D printing to manufacture plastic weapons that are undetectable by metal detectors,” said first-year Matt Klos.
These weapons, while a possibility, would be very low quality and likely would be one-time use, as the barrel would be destroyed after the first shot.
There are some limitations.
3D printing meticulously creates objects layer by layer, and because of this, it often takes a while for many methods to print.
The technology is sophisticated and new, and for many methods, the printing material can also be expensive.
Automotive companies using denser models face an expensive process involving an electron beam, metal powder and a vacuum.
Fortunately, though, things should get better over time.
The cost of 3D printers has declined dramatically since 1980 as new models are developed and cheaper materials are used. Current models are available for less than $1,000.
Speed may not be an issue for long either.
Some new methods are currently being tested to make the process faster, and many companies are experimenting with concepts like using multiple lasers.
In a decade or so, 3D printers may well be a household product.
“It’s just that cool,” said first-year Harrison Richards.