Although much of the talk about 3-D printing smacks of hype and overblown expectations, one thing is clear: it’s a disruptive technology that’s inspiring people to think differently about what it means to build stuff. Whether you want to believe that 3-D printing represents the end of the world as we know it or think it’s little more than a sharp turn in the evolution of manufacturing, it’s hard to see it as anything short of remarkable. If you’re a newcomer to the topic, read on – we’ve got some helpful information about the basics of 3-D printing, how it all started, and where it’s likely to go.
Most people think 3-D printing is a new technology, but nothing could be further from the truth. According to what we know, the building blocks of 3-D printing were first laid all the way back in the mid-1800s when pioneering photographer Francois Willeme developed the photo-sculpture technique. This technique involved the use or two dozen cameras, which Willeme used to capture a 3-D photo image. After creating what might today be described as analog data maps, Willeme used the photos to help him create dead-accurate sculptures of people.
Jump ahead to 1983, when the first modern-day advance in 3-D printing was made by engineer Chuck Hull. Using a technique he invented called stereolithography, Hull used UV light and photopolymer resin to produce the very first 3-D printed item in the world – a small plastic eyewash cup. Ever since, the technological world has been on a slow but gradual march toward realizing the inherent possibilities of 3-D printing.
3-D printing is also called additive manufacturing. The way it works is relatively simple in concept, if not incredibly complex in the actual technology that powers it. 3-D printing uses a digital design file to build solid objects one tiny layer at a time. So far, the only limitations have been those imposed by our own imaginations. The materials used in these “printer heads” can range from rubber to plastic to metals. But in truth, these methods are only scratching the surface.
Lately, successful experiments have been pulled off where homes and buildings have been 3-D printed in a fraction of the time it would normally take using traditional building methods. In the confectionery industry, you can find novelty endeavors like grocers who 3-D print edible decorations onto cakes. But when you look at the research being done into the use of biological materials to 3-D print human organs, you begin to understand the depth of possibilities.
It’s also a technology that could end the shipping industry as it revolutionizes the way we buy things. With a 3-D printer in every home, people may not have to go anywhere to shop. Instead, you’ll simply download the plans and print it out for yourself – effectively eliminating the need to have something physically delivered to you. In principle, it would even be possible to 3-D print a 3-D printer.
3-D printers remain costly, but they’re gradually becoming more affordable and you can expect prices to drop as time goes by. Today, most consumer-level 3-D printers run the range of cost from a few hundred dollars to a few thousand dollars.
If you’re interested in learning how to 3-D print, you can get a head start by visiting sites like 3DPrintingForBeginners.com and 3DPrintingIndustry.com and reading up on the basics. You can also check out Amazon’s 3-D Printing Store to see the kinds of 3-D printed merchandise that you can already buy.