The technology that makes 3-D printing has actually been around since the mid-1980s (Charles Hull invented a layer-by-layer manufacturing process he called stereolithography, which can be used for rapid prototyping and for small-batch, specialized parts production), but it’s only been within the past couple of years that it’s become possible to re-create more common, everyday objects (custom toys, iPhone cases, jewelry and even a 3-D printed book jacket, among many things).
At www.thingiverse.com, there are thousands of digital designs available; blueprints can be downloaded to print out objects from chess pieces to napkin rings to video game characters!
3-D technology also has the potential to not only alter, but revolutionize many industries, ranging from small-batch manufacturing, aerospace engineering, prosthetics to reconstructive surgery and more (it’s speculated that within the next decade, transplant organs will be built and new nerve cells harvested from 3-D printing).
To make it work, 3-D printing follows the same process (whether it’s on a computer, in a medical lab, etc). It starts with a blueprint created in a 3-D digital modeling program. Taking instructions from those digital files, the 3-D printer then builts the object by laying down one superthin layer at a time of the material at hand (which can metal, plastic, food purees or even human cells).
It wasn’t until MakerBot came along in 2009 that the idea of personal 3-D printing took hold (along with the debut of Thingiverse and the opening of Amazon’s 3-D printing store (in the summer of 2014).
In the near future, there may be a possibility of household 3-D printers, but most industry experts are skeptical on this particular transition; instead, they see 3-D printing as more likely enhancing and advancing traditional manufacturing.
“I strongly believe this technology will help create tens of thousands of new companies and jobs in the U.S. and abroad,” according to Terry Wohlers, president of Wohlers Associates, a Fort Collins, Colorado-based consulting firm that specializes in the 3-D industry. “In fact, we’re seeing it happen.”
One of the best ways that 3-D printing is being used is in the medical field; across the U.S., research teams are making swift progress in 3-D printing a variety of body parts such as muscle tissue, skin, large and small organs, skulls, bones and more. (3-D printed implants would present far fewer risks regarding transplant rejection, because the cells would be gathered from the patient’s own body.)
Source: “Everything That’s Fit To Print” by Jessica Winter-Parade magazine, October 12, 2014