The rise in popularity of 3D printing is all thanks to patents expiring and intellectual property becoming available on the open market. Since some of this has begun to enter the public domain, 3D printing has become en vogue and more accessible: as evident by the 3D printers available in Galvanize, CSU's Idea-2-Product Lab and open workspaces like Boulder Hackerspace.
There are a variety of different printers out there, including SLS type printers that use a laser to fuse a powder into its final form and FDM (Fusion Deposition Modeling or Extrusion Printing), which is, in essence, akin to a very fine hot glue gun that squirts out plastic instead of glue.
Polyjet printers, like the one Effective UI president and founder Anthony Franco has installed at Galvanize, can be thought of as inkjet printers that use incredibly fine droplets of plastic to print out their creations. Simply put, it looks and moves sort of like an inkjet printer; a print head moves back and forth across the printing bed, depositing tiny drops of plastic with each pass.
As you could imagine, these machines are dealing with a very serious level of precision and what you can do with it is very impressive. This level of detail is evident in the prints that Franco has on display on a counter next to the printer, from functioning ball bearings to an eerily realistic mold of a human hand, complete with visible bones.
Now the question becomes, what do we with this amazing technology? Well, some industries have found very practical and profitable ways to utilize the technology. Franco said Polyjets have found favor by dentists casting molds and models of teeth as well as jewelers prototyping very fine designs.
GE has even used SLS-style printers with a metallic powder in large-scale manufacturing, producing jet engine parts that would have been impossible to manufacture any other way.
Some extrusion printers (FDM) have been developed to print with three different colors of even three different materials, such as nylon. A startup by the name of 3DSoles uses this technology to print custom orthotics for customers. It is this end of the market that will experience the most growth and rapid advances in technology, predicts David Prawel of CSU's I2P lab.
"Growth in this low-end market segment will far outperform that of the more expensive devices, while at the same time, technology innovation will happen faster on the low-end devices due to their open-source architecture and development model," Prawel said.
3D printing can allow companies to prototype faster than ever, Prawel said: "At some point in the next five years, everyone who makes a discrete product will be using additive manufacturing somewhere in their operation. Whether it’s in product design, engineering, development or prototyping, this amazing new technology is proven to dramatically reduce design cycles and accelerate time to market."
Still, some companies struggle in finding ways to take advantage of the technology, meaning that the biggest barrier may not be the brittle material or the flexibility of the print heads, but our own creativity.
“When I first got the 3D printer put it in here, the question I got the most was,' 'Can I put my logo in it?’” Franco said. “Honestly people struggle with ‘How do I apply this technology to what I’m doing today?’”
The way Franco explains it, unless you have a plan to implement additive manufactuing into your protyping cycle, 3D printing can sometimes act as an expensive distraction that can leave startups scratching their heads.
“Given the way it is now, it’s basically all the stuff at Chuck-E-Cheese that you don’t want to buy anyway," Franco said. "The little plastic toys and stuff. It really is still more of a novelty than really practical.”
However, lest you begin to think that nothing useful ever comes out of 3D printers aside from very cool trinkets, let Franco first explain what’s going on over at MIT: “Where it gets really interesting really quickly is in commercial spaces. There’s two technolgies that I’m really excited about.”
The first has been apply coined “4D printing”. While the engineers at MIT may harbor some resentment over this title, it does describe what differentiates it from 3D printing fairly accurately: the element of time. These printers can print an object in one form with a medium that, when an electrical charge is applied to it, it changes into its final form. This could have some amazing implications for how we ship products or medical implants that can be inserted in one form and then changed into another.
The second piece of technology allows for the printing actual living cells. Down the road it’s feasible that you could send a company with such a printer your DNA and expect a pancreas in the mail a few weeks later. So go ahead and drink up, you can always order a new liver later.
While these technologies are fascinating, they are far removed from conventional types of 3D printing that may find more widespread use. It remains difficult to forecast what these widespread possible consumer or commercial uses could be down the road. For the foreseeable future 3D printing will remain in the realm of hobbyists and companies with a predetermined and specific vision for how they will use 3D printing technologies for their unique needs.
The bottom line is that 3D printing isn’t for the faint of heart. To get your money’s worth, it requires an investment of time as much as money. Still, there will always remain the siren call of the 3D printer, the promise of turning ideas into their physical form faster then ever previously thought possible.
“That’s the cool thing for me: to be able to imagine something and then a day later hold it," Franco said. "That’s just really fascinating."
For those who want to learn more about 3D printing and perhaps try to print some designs of their own without paying the pretty penny for their own 3D printer, I2P lab and Galvanize are there just for that.
"Our I2P lab is here so small companies and entrepreneurs can take advantage of 3D scanning and 3D printing technology without investing in learning it or buying/maintaining a printer," Prawel said. "And we have experienced CAD users who can handle all aspects of product design and prototyping projects, from initial content creation/CAD all the way through prototyping and production mold-making."