I have a list of things for which I am grateful that I live in the 21st century: there’s the obvious: Internet (Search engines, social media, free ebooks and such), cell phones, 3D movies, portable computers, scientific calculators (cut me some slack, am an engineer), and the less obvious: shoe insoles, rolling suitcases…and recently another, 3D printers!
Commonly referred to as rapid prototyping machines, or less formally as ‘fabbers’, these machines produce three-dimensional objects.
All you have to do is download a CAD (computer aided design) file of the object you want and print it. Not yet as widespread as say, inkjet printers, this technology promises to democratise creation of objects!
In my experience as a fourth year engineering student, I needed a customised part for my subsystem; given the limited time I had on my hands and the fact that I really did not want to dig around the Internet for it, I designed the part with the specifications I wanted using SolidWorks CAD and printed it out.
I did it the same way I wrote my college essays and printed them out!
These printers work in a curious manner-by laying down successive layers of material-and are more efficient than conventional additive manufacturing technologies (joining materials to make objects from 3D model data, layer upon layer).
Just as there are different paper printing methods: inkjet, toner-based, etcetera, there are different 3D printing techniques such as inkjet printing, fused deposition modeling, etcetera.
The goal of this article is not to bore you out of your socks talking about the specifics of the technology but more to create awareness of the existence of such a printer (in response to two friends back home who ridiculed me for dreaming of the existence of such a printer until Google told them otherwise!) and to explore some exciting applications of the technology other than the conventional use in industrial settings for manufacture and in education/research settings for creation of prototypes-mainly for testing purposes.
One interesting application is in the medical field whereby doctors transform CT scans into a 3D model (printed) that allows them to prepare for complicated surgeries before performing them on the patients-this minimises mistakes and reduces uncertainty.
3D printers are also beneficial for use in reconstructive surgery whereby a customised facial prosthetic can be printed out for use as a guide during the procedure.
That is not all; this technology has penetrated the aerospace, architecture, footwear and even jewelry industries. Production of prototypes or even beta-version products means that we will be able-in the near future-to bring our creative designs to life at home; in fact a number of companies have come up with cheap 3D printer alternatives for domestic use by hobbyists.
Suffice it to say, with the right set of materials and a blueprint, we are in an age whereby you can fabricate complex objects that would normally require special resources, tools and skills if using conventional techniques. Ah, the beauty of technology…