Imagine printing solid objects that feel as real as a device that you hold in your hand everyday. Just imagine being able to print your favorite gaming station, t-shirt, or any stuff that you’d love to own. This is 3D printing. We’ve just started walking baby steps towards it. In the near future, everything will seem as true as reality.
How does it work?
3D printers follow instructions of digital form, i.e. they take digital input from computers, or similar machines, and convert them into physical objects. This process is called 3D-printing. In industrial terms, it is also called Additive Manufacturing (AM) since you add elements layer upon layer to get the final product. But how do these printers convert the digital files into physical objects? Well, they follow certain steps:
1. Read the input digital (STL) file.
2. Check for errors (known as “Repair”).
3. Process the STL file using a “Slicer”. (A slicer converts the model into a series of thin layers and produces a “G-code” file containing instructions tailored to a specific type of 3D printer.
4. Now, the 3D printing software loads the G-code and uses it to instruct the 3D printer.
5. The printer prints the loaded model and finally builds the physical object.
What has been achieved?
3D printing started way back in 1984 when Chuck Hull of 3D Systems Corporation developed a prototype based on Stereo-lithography. Even before Hull’s prototype, Hideo Kodama, a Japanese researcher, had already invented the process of generating 3D objects that created a cross-sectional pattern of the object to be printed. But, Hull is considered to have created the STL (STereo-Lithography) file format widely used and accepted by present 3D printing software.
Nowadays, 3D printers print toy robots, whale skeletons, objects with amazing patterns, printed-circuit boards, and so on. These are just some of the wide variety of objects printed and the success achieved in this field till now. There’s a lot more to come. Scientists are optimistic about the wonders that can be created if everything goes well. Today, we are making human fetuses out of the ultrasound images; who knows if we can create substitute functional human body parts. Even food printing is being considered. Some work has already begun. Chocolates and candies are good choices to begin with. Even 3D printed jewellery has paved its way out to show that artificial resources can come in handy when the world is facing an imminent danger of resource extinction.
What’s yet to come?
The world that we live in is ever-changing and demanding. Whilst the demands of 3D printing is increasing, people are looking for affordable 3D printers that could print objects of daily use at low cost. A lot of research is going on at numerous private and public institutions. Recently, in February 2016, the University of Tokyo created a complex structure using thermoplastic filament rods. The printing process was fully controlled by the students using the 3D printing pen but aided be a digital tracking system. On the other hand, a collaborative team of researchers from the Vienna University of Technology in Austria have created a mathematical optimization process to create 3D objects with properties that seem ‘impossible’ to be printed. eg: Models of a fish that floats just below the water surface, crooked bottle that reacts differently depending on whether alcohol or water is put.
Whether or not they become a common household device in the future, 3D printers show a lot of promise in other areas too. Recycling may become easier. If it eases the process of human medication, it would be a boon to the society. There is constant research and development in the field of 3D printing with giants like NASA and Google entering the market.
Cambits: 3D printed blocks that transform into multiple cameras.
RepRap: Your personal 3D printer.