There is a new wave of inspiration and excitement spreading through the social sphere relating to the latest innovation developments within the tech world, and more specifically the world 3D printing. You cannot open any social-media platform without someone or other posting about some amazing new item was 3D printed and has now changed someone’s life. There are even a number of articles focused on prosthetic limbs printed for animals.
So what exactly is 3D printing?
The concept seems pretty straightforward, its 2D printing but with special materials that are layered and combined on top over each other to create a 3D object. The practicality of it however, is not so simple.
Where with traditional printing there is one ‘layer’ of data used to create the 2D image, 3D objects require multiple unique ‘layers’ to build up an object. Think about it, not only are the horizontal features taken into account, but the vertical proportions also need to be considered. Additionally, much like different colors are used in a traditional print, 3D printing has to account for not only different colors but sometimes also different materials.
Let’s take an example. In Washington University in St. Louis, three biomedical engineering students were able to print a fully functioning robotic prosthetic 3D arm, made of bright pink plastic, for a 13 year old girl. In order to print the arm, they needed to engineer a 3D computer model of the arm composed of unique several parts. These part comprised of each part of the fingers and thumb, the forearm etc. Then they created the printer instructions for each component, printed it, and then assembled the arm whist adding in the internal chips and wires for it to be fully functional.
It is important to note that though printers can already print using a combination of different materials together much like printing different color such as with a Stratasys printer that can print around 100 different materials, the technology still needs to be developed for the printing of electronics. However, I would not imagine that it would be too long before these technologies are developed.
What is next for 3D printing?
It seem to be that in the not too distant future purchasing items will be a print your own device system. Each provider will store a cloud based bank of printing instructions for various products, once you select the product you wish you buy, you will receive a unique one-time usable code that will print your order. This order could potentially be anything from your new mobile phone to your next meal. Cloud technologies growing at the rate that they are, you may even be able to schedule a print from your phone that will print a hot meal ready for you when you arrive home from work.
More than this, people are already developing the printing protocols for 3D printed housing. This will have huge ramifications for the construction industry as large if not all parts of the house can be 3D printed.
This video from last month shows how the technology is already being used in Shanghai.
A great point that is mentioned in the video is how this is a much more environmentally friendly alternative to traditional construction methods. This is because instead of digging up stones that need to be of a certain shape and size, the printers can use recycled building materials mixed with cement for the frame.
A problem that will need to be pre-empted in all this is the possible ramifications of bugs in the printing algorithm. What I mean by this is that the code has to be intricately specific with regards to which materials are used to print for which part of the house. So your bathroom is not left with tile walls, metal floods and brick sinks. This is obviously a satirical exaggeration but it illustrate just how intricate the code need to be with 3D printing.
This means that architects and computer programmers will have to work extremely closely to create the code each object. The upside to this is that construction costs will reduce dramatically and building time will shrink dramatically from a number of months or years to just a few days or weeks.