Emerging Technology (Enhancing, Engaging, Connecting)

3D Printing

Many of us will remember the synthesizers aboard the USS Enterprise on Star Trek. “Computer, how about a bowl of chicken soup? And I’ll need some clothes for beaming down to the planet’s surface — make sure they match the ones being worn there.” As far-fetched as that sounded at the time, it’s moving toward reality today, and we are in the midst of something really exciting. Its name is 3D printing, and it’s exploding in development and use across numerous industries — and even at home.

How It Works

Traditional printing works in two dimensions, by applying a material to the surface of paper or other materials to form an image. One of the reasons 3D “printing” came to be called by its name is that it started as an expansion of that process, but in three dimensions. In this process, sometimes called additive manufacturing, various types of materials are layered onto an object being produced, with the result being a precise manifestation of a digital image. Typically, software in the general category of computer-aided design (CAD) is used that drives the printer in the physical development of the object. The image of the desired object is computationally transformed into a procedure, incorporating large numbers of layers of material that must be precisely added on to produce the desired object. For an existing object, laser or other forms of scanning convert the original into a digital 3D file. For objects being initially designed, the computer aids the designer in developing this 3D design.

3D printing was actually developed in the 1980s — ironically just two decades after the original Star Trek series. But technology had to advance to accommodate the possibilities of this process. In recent years, this technological evolution has advanced substantially. In various areas, including healthcare, aerospace, high-tech manufacturing and others, product design, development and prototyping are being propelled rapidly forward by the capabilities of 3D printing. It has already found a place in numerous manufacturing processes as well.

Where It is Used

Like many people, I have several dental crowns. About three years ago, I had a crown designed and manufactured within the dentist’s office through the use of 3D printing. Today, this process is becoming common. There are now numerous technologies being developed and used that involve different “printing” techniques and a wide range of materials.

Nothing is quite as useful in conveying a complex concept as real-life examples. For this story, the website Mashable.com provided examples of 3D printing that anyone can readily identify with, that I summarize in the following.

Sketchfab, a product that lets users publish and share 3D content online, has collaborated with the British Museum to make available the first downloadable collection of 14 3D models that users can print using 3D printing. The images are being made available under Creative Commons licenses that users can incorporate into virtual reality environments, video games and 3D printing.

Mark Deadrick, who is president of a company called 3dyn and who makes his living designing rocket parts, recently learned from a story posted online of a Chihuahua named Turbo that was born without its front legs. Deadrick designed, made and shipped to Turbo’s owners a 3D-printed wheelchair, and the puppy is now able to move himself around using the cart.

UPS provides 3D printing in approximately 100 of its stores across the U.S. The service, which began as a trial in San Diego, is available for use by individuals who can pay to use the service, including a high-accuracy 3D printer from Stratasys.

Finally, in 2013, NASA awarded a research grant to Systems and Materials Research Consultancy to develop a method for the 3D printing of food in space to support long-term space missions. And, the National Academy of Sciences recently published a book entitled 3D Printing in Space. The Academy notes the potential of additive manufacturing to support spaceflight operations, including long-duration missions, by enabling the manufacture of replacement parts and tools.

One of the most interesting aspects of 3D printing is that it is now available for personal use. The RepRap open-source project played a large role in making 3D printing available to hobbyists and others. Fab@Home is billed as the open-source personal fabricator project. These and other communities are rapidly expanding. And, 3D printers are widely available at affordable prices. A quick look confirms you can even buy them from Amazon.

We’re at a point where ideas are propelling this technology forward rapidly, and without doubt 3D printing will soon affect us all in many positive ways.

This article originally appeared in the December 2014 issue of College Planning & Management.

About the Author

David W. Dodd is vice president of Information Technology and CIO at the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, NJ. He can be reached at 201/216-5491 or david.dodd@stevens.edu.

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