3D printers are a new generation of machines that can make everyday things. They can make pretty much anything from ceramic cups to plastic toys, metal machine parts, stoneware vases, fancy chocolate cakes or even (one day soon) human body parts.
They replace traditional factory production lines with a single machine, just like home inkjet printers replaced many printing presses and one-hour photo finishing.
How do 3D Printers Work?
You start by designing a 3D object on an ordinary home PC, connect it to a 3D printer, press ‘print’ and then sit back and watch. The process is a bit like making a loaf of sliced bread, but in reverse. Imagine baking each individual slice of bread and then gluing them together into a whole loaf (as opposed to making a whole loaf and then slicing it, like a baker does). That’s basically what a 3D printer does.
The 3D printing process turns a whole object into thousands of tiny little slices, then makes it from the bottom-up, slice by slice. Those tiny layers stick together to form a solid object. Each layer can be very complex, meaning 3D printers can create moving parts like hinges and wheels as part of the same object. You could print a whole bike – handlebars, saddle, frame, wheels, brakes, pedals and chain – ready assembled, without using any tools. It’s just a question of leaving gaps in the right places.
Opportunities for 3D Printing
Have you ever broken something, only to find it’s no longer sold and you can’t replace it? 3D printing means you can simply print a new one.
Also, everyday items are made to measure – furniture made to fit your home, shoes made to fit your feet and door handles made to fit your hand. Even medicines, bones, organs and skin made to treat your injuries are on the horizon.
Limitations of 3D Printing
Although buying a 3D printer is much cheaper than setting up a factory, the cost per item you produce is higher, so the economics of 3D printing don’t stack-up against traditional mass production yet. It also can’t match the smooth finish of industrial machines, nor offer the variety of materials or range of sizes available through industrial processes. But, like so many household technologies, the prices will come down and 3D printer capabilities will improve over time.
Is it the Next Big Thing?
Like all new technologies, the industry hype is a few years ahead of the consumer reality. It’s an emerging technology which means, like home computers or mobile phones, most people will remain sceptical about needing one until everyone has got one… and then we’ll all wonder how we ever managed without them.