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What you need to know about 3D printers for today and tomorrow

Galen Gruman | March 4, 2014
Beyond the hype, there are real uses for this technology, but also some key barriers yet to be addressed

Consumer technologies seem to have invaded business a lot in the last few years: mobile devices, cloud services, social networking, and so on. You can soon add another one to the mix: 3D printing. But 3D printing is not just a consumer technology — it's also an industrial technology. What's really happening is that the ability to create objects via printers is getting to consumer-level prices, meaning it will be affordable for individuals and businesses alike to use more broadly.

Because the technology is coming from two very different markets, you can expect to see real differences in 3D printers — and ways you might use them.

3D printing today
The consumer version of 3D printing is, at least today, meant for hobbyists. The broadest current use case is to create figurines and other tchotchkes. Think of them as custom version of those plastic GI Joe game pieces you played with as a kid, replicating you, your dog, your kid, your spouse, Mr. Spock, Angelina Jolie, or some other person. There are services that will scan you, then print out a figurine based on that scan.

3D printing works by depositing layers of a material — usually a form of plastic — to build up a shape. In mass production, you'd use a mold and pour the material into it, let it cool, and sand off the rough edges. With 3D printing, that layer buildup accomplishes the same result as the mold. It's much, much slower, but it's fully customized.

People in the Maker movement are prime candidates for 3D printing as well: Instead of carving a block of material into a shape, you can print it instead.

But this form of 3D printing has two major limitations today. One is that the resulting objects have little tensile strength and little temperature tolerance. They're fine for figurines and other objets d'art, but they're not able to handle the stress of holding up a load or of other pressures, nor do they maintain their shape in heat or stay intact in extreme cold.

If you've ever had a deck made of synthetic lumber, you know you have a real wood frame and real wood posts under the synthetic surface because the fibers in real wood can bear more weight (that's called tensile strength) than the amalgam in the synthetic boards. The materials used in 3D printers also lack such fibers that provide strength to objects. Even if they had such fibers, because each deposited layer is so thin, there's no fiber run long enough to provide tensile strength; that's why paper towels, which have been mashed up and had their wood fibers broken apart, aren't as strong as as a piece of wood. 


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