Make Your Own Stuff With 3D Printing

Category: Printing

A reader asks: I’ve heard about 3D printing and how it enables you to make all kinds of cool things, even artwork and actual guns. How does it work, and where can I get a 3D printer?

What Is 3D Printing?

Some manufacturing processes are “subtractive.” You start with a piece of raw material and remove all of it that doesn’t look like the finished product. Sculpting a statue from a block of marble is an example of subtractive manufacturing. So is CNC machining, in which a virtual 3D model of the finished product created with CAD (Computer Aided Design) software, guides a robotic cutting tool as to which parts of the raw material to cut or keep.

“Additive” manufacturing starts with nothing and adds material until you have the finished product. Painting a portrait is one example. Building up a statue by sticking bits of clay together is a 3D example of additive manufacturing. 3D printing is the latest example, and it's a pretty cool technology.

3D printing starts with a CAD model just like the ones that CNC machining uses. A 3D printing system slices that CAD model into many cross-sections or layers. Each layer is very thin – as little as 0.01 millimeters – effectively making it a 2D pattern not unlike the patterns sent to a regular printer.
3D Printing

The “ink” used in consumer 3D printers is most often a semi-molten thermoplastic. (Although at least one 3D printer uses chocolate ink!) It solidifies when it is printed and cools in open air. Another layer is printed on top of the first, fusing to the first layer before it cools. Another is added, and so on, until the final product appears. Another 3D printing technique prints a layer of binding agent, then sprays very fine metal powder on it. A laser beam fuses the powder into a solid mass. The cost of such equipment puts it far beyond the reach of consumers.

Consumers, although limited to relatively weak “ink” materials, are still able to print a wide variety of 3D objects: art, replacement parts, and yes, even guns. In the U.S., at least, it’s legal to make a gun for personal use, but not to sell it without a firearm dealer’s license. The guns that have been created with 3D printing have not survived many firings so far: 5-6 shots for a .38 caliber round, a couple of hundred shots for a .22 caliber rifle. So of course, Congress is concerned. Let's just hope they don't throw the 3D baby out with the proverbial bathwater.

Can I Really Buy a 3D Printer?

The cost of entry-level 3D printers is falling rapidly. Of course, you get what you pay for. The cheapest 3D printers require quite a bit of assembly, power supplies, and a spare computer. You’re limited to smaller-sized objects, and the resolution (finish) of printed objects is coarser. But tinkerers won’t mind. At the low end, PrintrBot sells three models ranging between $375 and $699, and SoliDoodle has two models, priced at $499 and $799.

In the mid-range, The Makerbot Replicator 2 goes for $2,100, and Novedge’s dual-head 3D Touch Printer sells for $3,895. And if your needs demand the features and quality of a high-end 3D printer, the eCrater 3D printer can be yours for just $34,800.

3D printers are available in many high schools and colleges, where CAD and engineering classes are taught. Businesses are also getting into the 3D printing arena. It's a great tool for rapid prototyping, and even manufacturing of certain types of items. The skull pictured above was created by artist Joshua Harker, who sells them on Etsy.

In industry, 3-D printing can eliminate the need for ordering parts, the cost of having them shipped to a manufacturing location, and the labor involved in assembly. Converse embraced this technology back in 2004 and has achieved significant savings with the ability to create sneaker prototypes in under two hours.

Recently the Staples office supply store announced that they would be offering an in-store 3D printing service. The service will debut in Staples locations in the Netherlands and Belgium in early 2013. If you can't wait that long, or a European trip isn't in your plans, you can find numerous 3D "print on demand" services online.

Have you experienced interesting or unique uses for 3-D printing? What would YOU make? Tell me about it! Post your comment or question below...

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Most recent comments on "Make Your Own Stuff With 3D Printing"

Posted by:

11 Dec 2012

There is a lot more to 3-d printing than just the printer. What format/software is required for the printed item? I imagine creating the product digitally would require a high level of proficiency and a large monetary investment in software and hardware, yes?

EDITOR'S NOTE: You can find free CAD software. And aside from a data cable, you wouldn't need any hardware other than your PC and the 3D printer. Oh, and using the software to create your own designs is optional. I'm sure you'll be able to download ready-made CAD files for many interesting projects.

Posted by:

11 Dec 2012

If I get one for Christmas I'm going to make gold bars and pass them around to all you guys. Hmmm.
Best regards, john.

Posted by:

Jon Skrine
11 Dec 2012

One of the hospitals over here (UK) is using one to make orthopaedic braces.

I have two discobooberated knees (rugby and a 'head on') and would make a decent knee brace. Those available off the shelf are not suitable for a 'short, fat, git with big joints' and the bespoke ones are suitable for superstars and billionares....

The medical need for decent bracing and lightweight casts is tremendous. The savings to the NHS (here) and HMOs (States) are going to be tremendous - the reduction in aftercare due to accurate support and scientific method is considerable.

Now all we need is Doctors who actually know how to turn on a computer...... ;)

Posted by:

11 Dec 2012

I can tell that this is going to revolutionize the future for the entire globe. Why? Because it makes my brain want to take a vacation, just thinking about all the implications.

Do you think it will put FedEx, UPS and USPS parcel post out of business? (No time soon, of course.)

But just imagine: if you needed a tiny screw or other obscure part for something, you could just go online and print it from home. Investors, take note.

Posted by:

13 Dec 2012

I'll bet people in several government departments are crapping themselves over this technology.
In the following years prices will come down and I can visualize one in every home. I want one NOW!!!

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