What is 3D printing and what kind of impact will it have on your life?
3D printing is both an analog and digital process. Melted plastic is layered to create objects in real life – this is probably why I’m excited by it!
Do you remember in those old sci-fi shows where the crew of a spaceship would press a few buttons on a machine and out popped food or a thing?
Replicators were somehting that existed in our minds and our stories way before even primitive versions were in prototype. 3D printers are real life versions of sci-fi replicators.
While the imaginative replicators used molecules to make things “out of thin air” – 3D printers are more down to earth. They use plastic (which is often recyclable and soon to be recycled.) which is melted and extruded.
The process first begins with an idea – what thing needs to be made? How do we go about designing it? Computer Aided Design (CAD) software, used in engineering, brings an idea to life. Luckily, for the average person, there are many sites that are simple enough for even kids to use. Check out:
These online tools also have completed designs uploaded that you can use and manipulate.
Your 3D design is saved as a file the 3D printer can read, often as .OBJ.
The design is made up of hundreds or thousands of thin layers. These layers are extruded one on top of the other to create the 3D object.
Loaded into the printer software, you are able to manipulate how the object will sit on the printer platform.
Depending on how you position your thing, the printer will add supports to aid in the printing process, that can be broken off later. The printer almost always adds a base for stability, which can be broken off later.
In many 3D printers, including MakerBot, the plastic is in the form of filament that feeds from a spool into the machine. You can see it here on the right (back) of the 3D printer:
There are different methods of 3D printing, but this method above, called Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM) is one of the most popular and very common in consumer 3D printers. The filament is heated by the printer nozzle and the melted plastic is extruded layer by layer as the design requires. The melted plastic immediately hardens, getting ready for the next layer.
I chose a token holder (with my initials carved) as my first 3D object to print. In Toronto, you can design at, or bring your designs (in .OBJ format) to, the special Hubs in the Toronto Public Library system. Currently there are two Digital Innovation Hubs in Toronto, with a 3rd on its way. The Hub at the Fort York branch has two printers you can book.
The technology quickly became cost-effective for consumers, and prices of 3D printers range from $250 to $2,000.
Still in its infancy, home users tend to create object like these:
But amazing things are coming out of the 3D printing world.
In China, a company is 3D printing houses, using cement and construction waste. The houses cost about $5,000. Watch the video here.
There are many other useful objects that people are printing:
And yes, finally, even 3D printed food is a reality! Watch the video here.
It is not, however, a “gift from the gods”, as there are still real issues, both ethically and physically. Does the world need more plastic things?
Although recyclable, the plastics still give off toxins when heated. The printers also use a lot of energy. 3D printers consume 50 to 100 times more energy than injection molding. PLA plastic is biodegradable, and used by the Toronto Public library.
The most common things to be printed are household items, including dishware. The most common plastic for home printing is ABS plastic, which has the chemical BPA, known to cause cancer.
Finally, there’s the stone cold reality that some people are printing weapons. This does not allow me to put my full faith in this technology.
Will 3D printing ever be more than just a fun thing you do at a friend’s house or at the library? Consumers will decide how far the technology will go. Perhaps until we learn how to replicate molecules, at best we will make a few trinkets and funny looking clothes. And maybe that’s ok. Technology can quickly get ahead of us and take on characteristics that no one predicted or wanted.
Personally, I would like to see the technology remain fun and ethical, with little impact on the environment or health.
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Like most blogs, This Analog Earth! is made up of research and wise knowledge gathered over the years. Here is a list of resources I got information and images from: