3d printing is a buzz phrase that has slowly made its way into the public consciousness in the last year but unless you are involved you are probably not clear on exactly what it is. What it is not is a replicator from Star Trek – the technology might end up there in many years to come but it is not there yet.
What 3d printing lets you do is put a very small amount of a molten plastic or occasionally a molten metal on a very specific spot. This plastic is allowed to cool then another tiny amount is added. Over a number of adds a layer is built up and then another and another to whatever specific shape has been programmed in.
As you can imagine this process takes a long time – hours – and if there are any disturbances or problems it can fail entirely. For example if you did not have the 3d printer on a totally levelled surface you would get lots and lots of failed prints.
The reason that it is becoming more popular is because of a combination of the process getting easier and cheaper with modern printers incorporating things like self levelling and dropping rapidly in price. The Micro 3d that has appeared on kickstarter in the last week is a good example – it is simple and cheap and hugely popular at $299.
So what can it do? At the moment it is better described as something with potential. You can print out shower hooks, lego blocks and prototype parts as well as a very long list of other things, but in most cases it would be more cost effective to just go out and buy a shower hook. Or you can let your imagination run free – an ergonomic button top moulded to your finger? A splint? A bigger handle for the washing machine door?
In the future the we will have more templates available off the shelf, the printing will get faster, cheaper and easier but if you have a need or a hankering for this already it has gotten to the the point where almost anyone can do it.