Thursday, June 21, 2012

Print your own 3D items, anyone?

The 3D printing technology is kicking up a storm recently, with more materials added.

An example of 3D printed limited edition jewellery. 
Photography: Atelier Ted Noten. Image Source: Wikipedia

So... What's 3D printing?
Wikipedia provides a good explanation of what's 3D printing- "3D printing or additive manufacturing is a process of making three dimensional solid objects from a digital file. 3D printing is achieved using additive processes, where an object is created by laying down successive layers of material. 3D printing is considered distinct from traditional machining techniques (subtractive processes) which mostly rely on the removal of material by drilling, cutting etc.
3D printing is usually performed using a materials printer, and since 2003 there has been large growth in the sales of these machines. Additionally, the cost of 3D printers has gone down. The technology also finds use in the fields of jewelry, footwear, industrial design, architecture, engineering and construction (AEC), automotive, aerospace, dental and medical industries, education, geographic information systems, civil engineering, and many others."

Simplistically speaking- it's making a 3D item on your own, with a 3D printer that is the size of a desktop printer (Hmm... a Laserjet).

A video showing the process of 3D printing:

What does it mean for you and I?
I checked out some of the options available. It seems that the cost of 3D printers are not exuberantly high. A simple 3D printer should cost about USD2000 to 3000- about the price of a high end laptop. The size of a 3D printer, as you would have guessed, is about the size of a desktop printer. Meaning, it won't take up too much space in your home.
With this not-very-expensive price, 3D printers would allow customisation of items. Imagine designing your own phone covers and jewelleries? Ha. However, before you think that this is really easy, you need to first create the 3D virtual data using AutoCAD or similar software such as Google SketchUp. If you are replicating an object, use a 3D scanner to scan the object before loading the resultant data into a software.

Some of the things which perhaps could be done with a 3D printer.
  • Prototyping3D printers could be used to create prototypes/models for testing purposes. Just to see if it's fits or whether parts work together.
  • ModellingYou models enthusiast out there- yes, you could draw your own characters and create the real models! Imagine creating your own character and then making a real model! (Pardon me, i'm not a model enthusiast. If I made a mistake in this comment, do let me know. :))Links:
  • Education
    Compared to visualising anatomy, planets or other curriculum topics in a virtual environment, teachers could potentially create a real model and bring it to the classrooms. Well, that is, if the models are not already available.Perhaps the better use is to make a model that is local context and which is not available internationally. For example, a small model of Bukit Timah Hill in Singapore showing the biodiversity in the area etc.
  • Phone Covers??
    Can we make our unique phone covers? Oh yeah. That should be a possibility.
  • Medicine
    In the field of medicine, researchers are developing ways to lay down layers of cells to make artificial organs.
    There's also possibility that doctors could use CT scans to generate realistic organs before surgery.

What about the environment?
1.) Resource Management- A dilemma
  • Increasing demands for materialsThere's possibility that the advent of 3D printing might cause issues with resource management. The world is already grappling with resource scarcity. If 3D printing is affordable and wide-spread, there might be increasingly use of personalised, home-based printing of items. This would create a consumer market demand on resins and materials, thereby complicating the already tight resource scarcity. Would these cause more items to be made and therefore more resources used (and perhaps also lead to less resources used for mass production due to drop in demand?)?
  • Recycling and Reusing Materials
    On the other hand, could we use 3D printing to reuse/recycle old materials? Would it be possible to break down unwanted items into component materials and then make them into new products using 3D printers?
  • Less Wastage
    Traditional manufacturing practices usually uses 'subtractive' processes that mostly rely on the removal of material by drilling, cutting etc. Since 3D printers use the 'additive' process where layers upon layers are added to 'print' (well, construct) items, it could potentially save resources wasted in the manufacturing process.
    Also, if a part of your device/machine is spoilt, perhaps you could simply print the part. Could this save you the carbon footprint for buying the part since you can make it locally?
2.) Pollution
Would the materials cause pollution? Compared to factories who are regulated by government agencies and require compliance in managing pollution during the production process, would the 3D printing process cause pollution issues? Perhaps there is a need to regulate the materials that could be supplied for 3D printers to ensure that it does not cause pollution.

3.) Public Health
Are the materials safe for use? Would it affect our health? Would non-regulated potentially harmful materials make its way into our homes?
This would possibly require regulation and checks to ensure that materials for 3D printers are safe- much like the standards for materials used in food manufacturing and toys etc.

Attitude Matters
I have many questions about the potential impact of 3D printing on our environment. But still, there are some basic principles which we could adopt if we are to ensure a balance of needs, wants and sustainability.
1.) Make/Buy only What You Need
This is the basic idea in sustainability. Make/Buy only based on what you require, rather than making things you want but not really necessary.
2.) Protect Yourself
Only use materials which you know are safe for health. At least, until the regulators set a standard and regulate the materials available.

The not-so-good aspect of 3D printing
Well. Crooks. According to PC World, they could use the device to replicate your keys. your cards and whichever items small enough to be fabricated. That's a nightmare! PC world also stated sources mentioning that a rifle magazine was printed that could hold 5 rounds of ammunition! This is crazy! We don't want guns going round the world and live in fear always. Not that the magazine seemed durable enough for use, but this is a possibility.

More Understanding Needed
The 3D printing technology is still at nascent stage. More understanding on the potential impacts needs to be studied so that we can make this emerging technology an environmentally sustainable one.

More links on the topic:,2817,2394720,00.asp

The blog post reflects the personal views of the author and is not representative of any organisations.


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