Saturday, March 31, 2012

3D Printing Technology for Everyone

Star Trek Replicator Makes Coffee
Remember how the Star Trek crew could order dinner from the console of a wall-mounted "replicator" that would conjure up a four-star meal from the base elements?  Assembled from the ground up from the rawest of raw ingredients: carbon, hydrogen, etc? Today we refer to this kind of device as a "matter assembler," a concept popularized by Eric Drexler in his book, Engines of Creation. (For a really cool fictional treatment of the profound, world-changing impact such capability would have, see one of my all-time favorites, Neal Stephenson's awesome sci-fi novel, The Diamond Age.)

There are a lot of brilliant people working on realizing Drexler's concept of manufacturing essentially anything from the base elements of which it is composed... we call this "molecular assembly" or, more generally,  nanotechnology. Very ambitious, indeed, and probably not something you can do at home... Well then, for the rest of us, there is something a bit more modest but incredibly useful and fun called "3D printing"... and you can do it at home!

MakerBot "Replicator" Low-Cost 3D Printer
The first 3D printers that started coming to market a decade or so ago are very much like inkjet printers, but instead of printing ink on paper, they print three-dimensional objects in layers of extruded or liquid plastics. At first, these printers, from companies like ZCorp, Objet, and Stratasys, were targeted at engineering teams that wanted to quickly build product prototypes to check form, fit, and function (a process known as "rapid prototyping," or RP). The technology was new, so it was expensive ($50,000 or so) and hence out of reach of the home user. That's changing now... affordable printers are on the market now from companies like MakerBot Industries and Bits From Bytes.

The basic concept involves the creation of a 3D model in a computer-aided design (CAD) software system, such as Google SketchUP (which is free!), AutoCAD, or Rhino3D (one of my favorites). The software then translates the completed 3D model into a profile of the device in layered cross-sections... that is, horizontal slices through the model. A 3D printer uses that output file to build up the model in layers that are printed from the bottom-up. You can see this process in action here.

What if you don't want to invest in a MakerBot or RapMan for yourself? Well, now you can use an online 3D printing service, such as the popular Shapeways company. Download yourself a copy of the immensely popular Google SketchUP software, draw a model of the thing you want --- a toy, jewelry piece, whatever --- and upload the output file to Shapeways. Select the material you want it made from --- even metals, such as sterling silver and stainless steel! --- upload the model and get an instant quote on your design, then if you are happy with the price, put it on order.

3D printing is advancing now by leaps and bounds. It is moving beyond prototyping into "digital manufacturing," the creation of one-off, personalized products on demand. For example, you can get eyeglasses on demand from Make Eyewear.

UPDATE: This is incredible... 3D sculptures the size of a grain of sand, created in minutes by a laser printer at the University of Vienna!

Meanwhile, check out the possibilities of nanotech as Neal Stephenson envisions them in The Diamond Age


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  2. Hi Thanks for provide the Digital printing services.

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