Science Fiction Strikes Again

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Regan Meloche tells you everything you need to know about 3D printing

Regan Meloche
Contributor

Just as it did with the Internet, space travel, and cell phones, science fiction is once again becoming a reality. This time it is with 3D printing, the technology to create your own 3D objects with the click of a button.

While additive manufacturing (the technical term for 3D printing) has been around for about 30 years in the manufacturing industry, the technology has recently started making its way into the consumer market, and it is doing so at an impressive speed.

The 3D printing process begins with a spool of plastic filament, which is pulled into a small heater via a motor, where the plastic is heated to near melting point, causing it to become slightly viscous. A tiny nozzle then spits out this hot plastic onto a build platform, where it quickly cools and hardens, sticking to the platform.

The nozzle is connected to a series of three shafts and motors so that it is capable of moving very precisely to create the 3D object that is programmed to be made in the printer. The nozzle moves around the platform, spitting out the filament in the shape of the bottom layer of the object to be printed.

Once the bottom layer is done, the nozzle moves upwards, ever so slightly, and begins printing the next layer directly on top of the first layer, which has already cooled. This process continues until the object is completed, stacking layer upon layer until the final shape is realized.

For an object the size of a Rubik’s cube to be printed in 3D, the process will take close to 45 minutes. Considering that consumer-level 3D printers have only been around for five years, 45 minutes to print an object is considerably good.

The idea of creating objects that can then create other objects began in the year 2005, at the University of Bath in England. A professor by the name of Adrian Bowyer started the RepRap project, the goal of which is to create easy-to-use 3D printers that are capable of printing their own parts.

While some may negatively envision these printers as an army of robots able to independently self-replicate, grow exponentially, and in turn, take over the human population, realistic and optimistic visions see a more efficient use for such machines.

Researchers see these machines as a tool that can be used to accommodate the needs of people from every walk of life. Once you have a 3D printer, all you need is the material to print with, and the world is an endless possibility. This can cut costs, wait times, and allow for customization of material.

There are countless other applications for 3D printing, as the technology has a strong impact on almost any industry it touches. Archaeologists and paleontologists are using the technology to reconstruct precious artifacts, medical researchers are working with it to make artificial organs and blood vessels, and electronic engineers are these printers to try and print fully functional circuit boards.

The RepRap project is intended to be completely open source, so that any "do-it-yourself" hobbyist can make improvements on the machine and the software.
Some companies have also taken the technology of the RepRap, and made their own successful machines in the 3D printing industry. MakerBot industries recently released their latest 3D printer, the Replicator, which comes with two printing nozzles, allowing users to print with two different materials or two different colours. They also run a website called Thingiverse.com, where people from all over the world can upload their 3D designs for anyone to use. There are many free, open source programs available to make your own 3D designs, such as Trimble (formerly Google) SketchUp.

While the idea of being able to print your own objects sounds very exciting, there is speculation that issues will arise when the printers become more widespread. There are certainly some technical issues that need to be fixed and improved on the machines, but there are also some social issues that may have to be addressed.

With the power to physically create anything, the question to be asked is how long before people are able to illegally replicate and print keys, or even weapons? Projects like the Wiki-Weapon Project have already started working on designing a programmable gun design that anyone can download and print off at home. In just a few clicks, people may be able to start producing their own weapons.

Apart from the endless design possibilities and the blur between the legal and illegal, 3D print designs are also likely to face trademark, copyright, and patent issues – especially if individuals and designers begin selling the items they print to a worldwide market.

Legal or illegal, one cannot help but feel that with 3D printing taking the popular seat in the technology world, life may begin to feel like a science fiction movie.
3D printing has permeated the realms of industry, research, and the consumer market, and from a technological standpoint, the outlook is mind-blowing. New materials are being tested, different methods of 3D printing are being perfected, and MakerBot has even released a 3D scanner to accompany its 3D printer.

That’s right- you can now print a full-scale bust of yourself.

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