Three dimensional printing, or 3D printing, seems to be everywhere in the media. So, what is all the buzz about? For that matter, what is 3D printing?
3D printing is a method similar to “standard” printing with multiple layers of “ink” printed on top of one another to produce a solid object. In practice, conventional inks are too thin, so most printers use plastic. The most common type of 3D printer uses plastic that is heated and forced through a small nozzle. The nozzle is moved around a platter to “print” a single layer, and it is then moved away a fraction of a millimeter to form the next layer, fusing it to the first. A solid object is built up by repeating this process many times. Most 3D printers on the market work by this method, also known as fused deposition modeling (FDM). The main advantage is that the materials are pretty cheap and the printers are simple; however, the resulting objects have a rough surface since they consist of layers stuck together.
The second most common method for 3D printing is stereo-lithography. This technique uses a liquid plastic material known as monomer (yep, like one “mer”) that becomes a solid polymer when blue or UV light hits it (you got it — many monomers stuck together become a solid). A pattern of light is either projected or drawn with a laser, and a solid object is formed in the liquid. The advantage of this is that very smooth objects can be made; however, the printers are more complex and the materials are much more expensive.
So, why is everyone so excited about this?
The really cool thing is that we can now make almost any shape you can imagine within a couple hours. We are limited only by the size of the machine and the availability of material that can be melted or solidified. Prior to 3D printing, the process for getting a plastic prototype made involved a very time-consuming and expensive mold-making process, which could cost many tens of thousands of dollars. Now, you can have an idea and have a part in hand in a couple hours for just a few dollars. Since they are formed layer by layer, we can even make parts that cannot be made conventionally.
3D printing and other additive manufacturing practices are not just limited to plastics. Recently, a California group put forth a design for 3D printing a house. Instead of plastic and a small motion system, concrete is pushed from a nozzle held by a large robotic gantry that can be set up in a day. Markus Kayser has built a “solar sinter” project that fuses desert sand using solar energy and forms a ceramic object. Research groups have also been using relatively inexpensive 3D printers to make custom replacement body parts such as ears and noses.
Where are 3D printers in Gainesville?
At Florida Tech Toybox, we have an FDM printer with a rugged modifiable design. We routinely print conventional FDM materials for clients and members as well as for internal use. We will be modifying the printer during summer 2014 to print gels such as food (icing and candy) and biomaterials like collagen for making tissues. There are a few other printers publicly available in Gainesville, and they have been very busy printing prototype electronic cases, art and other untold creative inventions.
In North Central Florida, you can get help with creating your own 3D prints at the Tech Toybox, and Eric Pheterson at makesend.com also offers printing services using a MakerBot printer. UF affiliates have access to the A2 Fab Lab that has both FDM and SLA printers. There are several new facilities being planned for the region, and you can also purchase your own printer for less than $1,000.
To learn more, you can take an introductory class at The Tech Toybox or through the newly formed 3D-printing group at 3DGnv.com, where you can also sign up to stay informed about local events related to 3D printing. Classes are also being planned at Santa Fe College. Great examples of what people have printed are available at www.thingiverse.com — a site for sharing designs of “things.”
3D printing and additive manufacturing are providing exciting, new and expanding possibilities. It remains to be seen what is possible, but additive manufacturing is certainly a disruptive technology opening doors for the next generation of amazing creations.