“It used a laser beam to melt successive thin layers of titanium powder together to build the part. This was repeated with each cross section melted to the previous layer. It took 33 layers to build 1mm of height, so you can imagine there were many thousand layers necessary to build this jawbone.”
Ruben Wauthle, Medical Applications Engineer at LayerWise in an interview with BBC in February 2012
The 3D Printer revolution is underway, as the 3D Printer may be the next breakout product for the 2013. This even as Traditional Paper Printers as slowly being killed off by smartphones and Tablets as Mobile Computing is getting set for 2013, its hottest year yet as prognosticated in How the Apple iPad killed Ultrabooks, Printing and the Mouse as the World Rediscovers Tablets.
3D Printing is undergoing a slow transition from geek project to something everyone can use, akin to the development cycle of PC. Already, 3D Printers are being used by Ford Engineers for Prototyping Cars and components, suggesting that a Personal 3D Printer for Home use in creative designs isn’t such a far-fetched proposition.
Back in the 60’s, the idea of a PC didn’t exist. Hobbyist brought kits and built them in their garages in what were effectively electronics hobby Toys. The then-not-yet-famous pair of Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniac built the first practical computer, the US$666 Apple I, in a garage, formed a company and improved upon it with the Apple II in the early 1980’s.
The Apple II made the Personal Computer a reality; a Computer that anyone could have and use and not be an Engineer or a Geek as chronicled in Steve Jobs Resigns as Apple CEO – Fourteen years of Innovation with an “I”. The rest as they say is history; the same thing appears to be on the cusp of possibility for the 3D Printers becoming personal devices in people’s homes!
A start-up company called MakerBot, the maker of the Printers used by the Design Engineers at Ford, was started in September 2010 with only five (5) employees. Now thirty (30) geeks…er…..I mean employees strong, the company boasts thousands of devotees of their first Open Source 3D Printer, the much proclaimed Gutenberg Press of 3D Printers, the US$1,299 Thing-O-Matic, which was introduced in June 2011.
They even have a fan base website, the Thingyverse, where members who have a MakerBot 3D Printer swap 3D Template designs, with bragging rights going to members with the most complex designs. Due to its Open Source nature, rare for a Hardware product, it’s been modified and improved upon by the Developer Community.
The kit is a DIY (Do It Yourself) that you assemble, thus making it truly something for the geek and Software Developer/Engineering crowd and not yet a mainstream finished product. Once up and running and connected to your PC via a USB Port, you can go to the Thingyverse website and download designs to test out in the printer.
Dedication and planning is required to design and build 3D Models to test out in your MakerBot Thing-O-Matic. Being a member of the Thingyverse where you can download and collect 3D Model files to try out on your MakerBot Thing-O-Matic is extremely helpful. Interestingly enough, a lot of fans of MakerBot Thing-O-Matic Printers are also fans of Minecraft, which recently debut their LEGO Set as noted in Minecraft Apple iPhone and iPad making brick building Games Social.
The 3D Printer uses either of two (2) materials to print:
- ABS (Acrylonitrile butadiene styrene), the plastic material that makes LEGO
- PLA (Polylactide), which should be familiar to fans of MineCraft
Basically the MakerBot Thing-O-Matic works by heating the material to a molten state and then spewing it out via an extruder within the Printer cage-like structure. As the material is extruded, it builds up the 3D object layer by layer; much like a loaf of sliced bread is made up of many layers. Some 3D models, based on their complexity, may require hundreds or thousands of layers at a time, making printing a rather long task that’ll require you to make some hot Chocolate Tea while you wait for it to finish.
The clever devils at MakerBot have since improved on the design of the Thing-O-Matic with their latest model, the much-improved Replicator. The US$1999 MakerBot Replicator that initially made its debut at CES (Consumer Electronics Show) held in Las Vegas, Nevada in January 2012, making some analysts declare, rather hastily, that the time of the Desktop 3D Printer had come.
Not so fast, Bob the Builder! Despite its use by Ford Engineers as an encouraging signpost of what the future may hold for the 3D Printer, it’s got lots of ways to go. The limitations of the MakerBot Replicators are obvious:
- Still prints in 2 colours, cream and bright orange; the world of 3D Printers is mostly Monochrome!
- They’re slow and noisy
- More advance methods, such as Laser Extrusion that uses a laser to basically chisel down a block of material into the shape you desire doesn’t exist as yet
- 3D Printers are limited to extrudable material for printing; still haven’t reached the stage where 3D Printers can sculpt in any material.
- Real-time Cloud-Printing prototyping over the Internet i.e. someone can design a 3D model and as they design, it’s printed in real-time
- Polish to the design and proper Marketing, as it’s still a DIY Kit and not yet a proper finished product
Still their usefulness is obvious in areas outside of Engineering. Moviemakers use more commercial grade 3D Printers to make 3D models of parts, such as the IronMan costume, which was made by a 3D Printer. Med Sci has also found uses for 3D Printers, most notably in making 3D sculpts of body parts.
A good example involved the creation of an actual custom-built jawbone from sintering together layers of titanium powder. This Printer was made by a Belgian 3D Printer maker LayerWise. And it’s VERY time-consuming, based on the words of Ruben Wauthle, Medical Applications Engineer at LayerWise as quoted at the beginning of this article.
With developments such as research into Quantum Entanglement and Quantum Teleportation, with a little research it’s only a matter of time before 3D Printers can become Replicators, Star Trek Style totally disrupting the Packaging and Postal Service by allowing the transportation of physical packages over Ultra High Speed Wired Internet.
But for now the Development of 3D Printers for introduction is in its breakout year and pundits such as myself will have to track its eventual evolution into a household device, one layer at a time…….
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