Three-dimensionally printing the future

By Taylor Schlacter

Imagine your kidneys are failing and your only chance for survival is to receive a transplant, but, the waitlist is too long; imagine a tank or other military vehicle supporting a platoon of soldiers is disabled, miles away from any base or repair station; imagine the International Space Station was hit by space debris and the astronauts occupying it lacked the parts to repair it, forcing them to abandon the station. These scenarios, however unlikely, are just some examples of possible issues which are monumentally difficult, if not impossible to resolve. Today, however we find ourselves on the precipice of rendering such tasks trivial and no longer worrisome with the advent and rapid development of three-dimensional printing.

Courtesy 3ders.org

The very idea of 3D printing is mind-boggling in and of itself and sounds too good to be true, but the basic concept is more or less simple to understand and very practical. Essentially, just like a standard printer prints a layer of ink on paper, 3D printers print hundreds, or thousands, depending on the size of the object being printed, of layers of various materials in a bottom-to-top fashion, one layer at a time, to construct three-dimensional objects based off of a preexisting computer model. Each layer is roughly .1-.25 millimeters thick. Although most 3D printers basically follow the same processes, there are different methods and techniques for 3D printing, including: stereolithography, fused deposition modeling, selective laser sintering, and a host of others with just as complex sounding names. Different methods and techniques use different materials and are capable of creating different 3D objects.

The most contemporary method of 3D printing is multi-jet modeling, which essentially uses a laser to fuse the granules of various powdered materials together consisting of metals, ceramics, plastics, glass, and other strucutres, to build up objects layer-by-layer. Since only certain granules of the powdered materials are fused, there is excess powder leftover. Although we usually associate excess material as superfluous and unnecessary, it turns out that in the multi-jet modeling method, the excess powder plays a pivotal part in the printing process by supporting the structure of the 3D object as it is being built. Upon completion of the object’s construction, all of the excess powder is then recycled and used for future 3D printing projects. Not only is 3D printing capable of creating objects with impeccable accuracy and detail at a fraction of the cost and stress of current manufacturing, it does so with incredible efficiency.

In the immortal words of Austin Powers: “Whoop-dee-doo, Basil, but what does it all mean?!” Well for starters, the implications of this technology are absolutely staggering and will undoubtedly revolutionize the world and all of its institutions in the next decade. For example, go back to the three aforementioned scenarios: through an application called bioprinting, 3D printers will be able to grow new kidneys and other organs to replace your failing ones, eliminating the need for organ donors and the waitlists that follow; replacement parts for the disabled tank and other military vehicles can be printed out and installed, allowing them to become fully functional and operational again in a matter of hours; the astronauts aboard the International Space Station can print out and install replacement parts for the station, eliminating the need for them to abandon it. Sure, these examples may seem a little bit extravagant and aren’t really everyday issues, but they are still very much a reality. Although 3D printers today aren’t yet capable of such complex production, they are a lot closer than you may think and they are already making a tremendous impact in the world.

As it stands today, 3D printers are used for a smorgasbord of applications. Such applications include, but in no way are limited to, rapidly creating prototype models for engineering purposes, copying 3D scan data such as life-size bones for medical and archaeological purposes, creating crowns and long-term replacement teeth for dental purposes — yes, you can print teeth — creating 3D, intricately detailed models of buildings and homes for architectural purposes, and creating all kinds of 3D models for all levels and fields of education.

The already wide-range applicability of 3D printing is readily apparent, albeit, currently limited to prototypes and models. However, many companies are already investing heavily into the next phase of 3D printing, referred to as direct digital manufacturing, D.D.M., which will facilitate increased printing quality and capability, such as manufactured goods. The first evidence of this new phase became evident when Ph.D. student Peter Schmitt of M.I.T. printed out a plastic grandfather type clock that, after activating the counter-weight, started functioning like any other clock.

A few examples of these next-phase capabilities include printing spare parts for all sorts of appliances and vehicles instead of ordering them from manufacturers and having to wait for delivery and pay for the cost of shipping —  a godsend for anyone who owns a Volvo. 3D concrete printing would even allow for on-site printing of large-scale building materials for any specification, currently being worked on by Loughborough University in England; it could even print food.

But it’s not all about the big industry uses; 3D printing already exists today for cultural, personal and individual use. Anyone with around $1,200 to $2,000 can buy their own 3D printer from a number of different websites like makerbot.com or bitsfrombytes.com. Of course the cartridges of materials are extra costs, but in my opinion, having the ability to print any shape or object you can think of is well worth it. Although this process is in the very early stages of development and many people have yet to hear about it or come to an understanding of it, the fact that it is already a reality is remarkable; the fact that it’s just getting started is extraordinary. Even as I write this I can’t wrap my head around the implications of 3D printing in our already-advancing society; the possibilities seem fascinatingly endless and remedies to issues of varying significance become more and more apparent.

Taylor Schlacter is a Collegian columnist. He can be reached at [email protected]