- It is now possible to print objects ranging from decorative items through to human organs.
- This technology enables companies to test new prototypes very quickly, which significantly cuts costs.
It won’t be long before owning a 3D printer for domestic use will be as common as having one that prints paper. This means that exchanges of data pertaining to objects will be as usual as those presently occurring with songs, videos, et cetera.
Video from last year’s 3D Printshow Trade Fair, which was held in London.
A great change is now occurring and opening up a vast field of industrial and domestic applications. There have been so many breakthroughs over recent months that people are presently debating whether limits should be established with regard to printing objects. Meanwhile, it is evident that the legislation presently in force is lagging well behind the dizzying speed of developments in the new technology.
A MakerBot Replicator printing a Parisian building.
The basic technology is not new but the latest advances are revolutionary.
3D printers have been used for some years now, for example to make dental implants or automobile pieces. In fact, the exhibition “Re-Shaping Ideas, Ingenuity in 3D Technology”, which has just been held in the McDonough Museum of Art in Ohio, shows how these printers have evolved over the past 25 years.
The great leap forward has occurred with advances in the last year. These have made it possible to print very sophisticated objects, to multiply applications and to produce printers that are accessible for small businesses and domestic use.
This is a suggestive and complex subject. It is discussed in some of its different areas below.
What is a 3D printer?
Just as the traditional printer enable users to move a text from a computer to a sheet of paper, 3D printers make it possible to reproduce an object in its three dimensions (length, breadth and depth). In other words, if one has computer access to the three-dimensional data of an object, however simple or complex it may be, the 3D printer will “move” it into reality, as something that is literally within the user’s reach.
PBS Digital Studios.
Technology and Types
The technology makes use of 3D software to design the object and “translate” the information into 2D layers which then generate its three-dimensional replication. However, 3D printers are developing so fast that new models are continually being presented and marketed. In order to give a general idea of the different types that presently exist, we have opted to provide a synthesis of information that may be found in Wikipedia:
The compression type: a mass of powder (plaster or cellulose) is compressed by strata.
Depending on the method used for compression, one may use printers with an inkjet system that accumulates layers, making it possible to print in colours, and the laser type in which a laser beam transfers energy to the powder causing it to polymerise. It is then immersed in a liquid that solidifies the polymerised zones.
Once all the layers are printed it is only necessary to take out the piece. Any surplus powder is then removed by means of a vacuum cleaner and reused for subsequent printing.
Printers using additive processes or polymer deposition: the object is gradually “constructed” by adding layers of material (plastic, metal, et cetera), which give it body.
Another kind of 3D printing technology functions by injecting resins in liquid state, which are then cured by ultraviolet light. These are acrylic-based photopolymers with different physical-mechanical properties, for example varying degrees of flexibility, elongation at break, resistance, colours, and so on. They are notable for their precision and surface finish, which means that they are highly suitable for “mould construction”. The pieces are totally cured by the end of the printing process and there is no waiting time, although water jetting is necessary for removing the printing accessories. This technology has been the first to achieve the injection of two different materials in one printing, which then makes it possible to produce digital materials with “à la carte” properties.
Until now, the printers have been used almost exclusively in architecture and industrial design. Now there seems to be an endless array of applications: decorative objects, household goods, items of clothing, footwear, sets for the film industry, food (hamburgers, cakes, and so on), human organs and tissue … the limits are set by the human imagination. Some examples are given below.
Anecdotes aside, the most remarkable features of these printers are their biomedical applications and the fact that companies in the field can quickly test the efficacy of prototypes, thus considerably cutting costs.
The bone printer (3D Bioprinter)
This is capable of using stem cells to producebones to replace defective ones. This technology is now being applied and extended to replicating tissue and vital organs.
A few months ago, a hospital in Michigan (USA) managed to save the life of a baby with a trachea abnormality by using a tomographic image to reproduce the child’s airway in less than one day. The material used in the process will be absorbed by the child’s organism in three years (The New England Journal of Medicine).
Report in which multiple applications are demonstrated (Global TV, 16 x 9). In English.
Device for making iced drinks
The Institute of Design and Manufacturing (IDF) at the Technical University of Valencia (UPV), Spain, has created a new device for making crushed-ice drinks for a company that manufactures the traditional drink horchata (made from tiger nuts). This has been designed by means of a 3D printing process, thus reducing costs in the design phase by working with short deadlines and facilitating decision making.
Video by the IDF, Institute of Design and Manufacturing of the Technical University of Valencia (in Spanish).
Recently, researchers at the University of North Carolina have developed a method of “printing” with liquid metal (see video below).
Printing of objects in liquid metal (YouTube). In English.
Until very recently, prices were as high as 500,000 euros, which means that 3D printers could only be afforded by big companies and well-funded research institutions. It should be borne in mind that the cost includes that of the machine itself, the software and the cartridges of the materials used in the printing process. Nonetheless, increasing competition in the market is bringing prices down, and printers for domestic use and for small businesses are now being produced for 500 euros and upwards. Naturally, the price depends on the printer’s resolution capacity. In order to make them more affordable, some manufacturers are even selling models in self-build kits.
As soon as any item can be reproduced by anyone, questions are raised and these require answers. At present, a 3D-printed rifle, achieved by a young man – and the reasons he gives for choosing this particular object out of a whole range of possibilities – has become an Internet sensation and given rise, especially in Europe, to heated debate (see the Global TV video on 16 x 9).