Thursday, February 26, 2015

Next Step: Transporter Beam?

According to recent blogs, articles, items, and tweets, I need to decide where I am going to put my home 3D printer. The technology is booming and costs are coming down.  It is only a matter of time before every household will have one.

While I think about where the machine would reside in my house, I realize that I don’t know much about the technology. I have never questioned the desirability of such a gadget. Because, of course, I am imagining a machine that works like the toy-making machine invented by Grumio, the Toymaker’s apprentice in Disney’s  1961 movie Babes in Toyland. Toss in a little bit of this and a little bit of that, and out pops a doll—in roughly a minute—with soft hair, a beautiful cloth dress and plastic shoes, captivating glass eyes, and a lovely painted smile. Throw in a few different things and you get a tin drum with a tightly stretched plastic drum head and wooden drumsticks.  

3D printing—AKA desktop fabrication or additive manufacturing—actually refers to any of a number of processes that are used to produce a three-dimensional object, such as selective laser sintering, fused deposition modeling, and stereolithography. Using materials generally in powder or sheet form, the object is built in layers of “printing.” The differences in these processes largely relate to the method in which the layers are deposited and in the materials used to produce the object. While early technology primarily used plastics or polymers, objects can be produced from such things as metals, plaster, filament that imitates wood in appearance and texture, paper, rubber, and edible materials. Significant interest continues in developing uses of human tissue.  

In order to create printable designs or models for a 3D printer, one will need modeling software, a 3D scanner and/or a digital camera with photogrammetry software (software that can make measurements from a photograph), and various types of software that will convert the model to a format that will allow the printer to read and print the model, correct errors in the design conversion (gaps, surfaces that do not connect, etc.), convert the model into layers, yada yada yada. Although there are free versions of modeling software (Google SketchUp, Blender, Tinkercad, etc.), and the conversion and processing software will likely be packaged, an investment in the simplest equipment, software, and materials is easily going to be a couple of thousand dollars, and much, much more if considering commercial production.

Admittedly, the complexity and cost has cooled me somewhat to the magic of 3D printing and instilled a more realistic view regarding the “imminent’ presence of a printer on every desk or counter. After all, I would probably use a printer to make new knobs for my kitchen cupboards.

I am nevertheless intrigued by some of the stuff that has already been developed. In addition to component use in the automotive and aerospace industries, it clearly has promise for dental and medical products. The ability to more easily and efficiently create both typical and more complex customized products such as prosthetics, hearing aids, and dentures is exciting enough, but imagine the thrill of being able to print a new foot for a crippled duck. While some contemplate a future of using human tissue to print new organs, others are testing the market for 3D reproduction of the “Left Shark” costume from the Katy Perry Super Bowl half time show.  

So while not yet at the level of the Grumio toy making machine—I haven’t seen any description of a process that works with more than one material at a time—the technology is advanced enough to be used for great complex things, lots of little and practical things, or just-for-fun things, to awake the entrepreneur, engineer, or kid in all of us.

So now I am back to the problem of place—will a printer fit on my desktop or should we plan to take out the refrigerator? Do I have to rewire my house, or just add a few more power strips? Can I put it in a corner or will it need to be in the middle of the room, or do I need to build an addition to the house? Most importantly, can it double as a clothes rack?

1 comment :

  1. Looks like they are working hard on multiple body parts, especially the ear:
    Although it is years from commercialization, maybe they will also be able to print new brain parts to fix our ability to remember as we age.