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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

These issues also affect industrial 3D printing, whose history comes from two sources, both of which involving removing materials to create an object, as opposed to the 3D printing notion of adding materials to create it. One is photolithography, the process used to create computer chips. In that process, a block of layered silicon is etched to expose the desired circuits. The other is numeric control (NC) routing, which is a fancy term for automated lathes and other cutters. An NC router carves out the block of aluminum that becomes the chassis for a MacBook Air, the granite countertop for a kitchen, or the wood for a desktop.

Using a 3D printer would allow a single piece of equipment to create a wider variety of items, as well as reduce the wastage from cutting and etching.

Some people foresee 3D printing enabling the printing of custom or out-of-production parts as needed; workers in oil rigs, space stations, and rural farms would enthusiastically welcome this development. But the lack of tensile strength means the parts that could actually be used in production become quite limited. You could probably print a plastic gear that would last, as long as the temperature remained moderate and the gear wasn't being warped by other forces. But forget about a gear or fastener subject to strong forces or high temperatures, such as in an engine. Aside from temporary fixes, don't expect to create new parts for your tractor, car, furnace, or derby.

3D printing tomorrow
That's where we are today. On the industrial side, there's a lot of research on 3D printing — and early-stage products — using materials other than plastic, including metals, ceramic composites, and biological substances. There are even some devices on the market that can print an object using multiple materials: the Holy Grail for producing commercial-grade objects.

But the printing part is only half of the equation. You need a model of what to print before you can print it.

On the industrial side, those NC routers provide a straightforward path: the CAD/CAM drawings they use. 3D modeling is no longer science fiction, but now part of standard CAD programs and even consumer-accessible software like Adobe Photoshop, whose latest version has drivers for 3D printing. I foresee a time when you could have a 3D printer at home to which you download patterns bought over the Web, sort of like sewing patterns are bought today. It's also easy to imagine a company like pioneering this for consumers — who needs quadricopter delivery if you can print it on demand at home?

But for Makers and other hobbyists, even a program like Photoshop is pushing the envelope. If your goal is to replicate something — a figurine of your cat, a gear, a special Lego piece — you need a way to capture that object. Very few people could draw it themselves. That's where 3D scanners come in. A surprising number of handheld 3D scanners are being promoted, includingone that connects to the iPad, though a substantial portion are Kickstarter promises, not actual products likely to ever see the light of day.


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