The world of 3D printing for the masses

While 3D printing has been around for about 20 years, sales have recently skyrocketed thanks to a substantial drop in the price of 3D printers. The emerging 3D printing industry got a boost in February when President Obama highlighted it in his State of the Union address as something that could revive manufacturing and fuel new high tech jobs in the United States.

The world of 3D printing technology has its roots going back to the 1970s, but has recently begun to explode on two fronts – first as a fast growing and popular consumer product and second as an industrial product that advocates say could change the face of manufacturing.

Obama spoke about how the National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Institute is conducting research into how cutting-edge 3D printing technology can be moved from the research phase to day-to-day use. “A once-shuttered warehouse (in hard-hit manufacturing city of Youngstown, Ohio) is now a state-of-the art lab where new workers are mastering the 3D printing that has the potential to revolutionize the way we make almost everything,” Obama said.

Obama announced plans for three more manufacturing hubs where businesses will partner with the departments of Defense and Energy “to turn regions left behind by globalization into global centers of high-tech jobs.” Obama went on to say, “And I ask this Congress to help create a network of 15 of these hubs and guarantee that the next revolution in manufacturing is made in America.”

How exactly does 3D printing work?

Depending on the application, 3D printing can work in a variety of ways. Frequently portrayed as a seemingly magical and mystical process, 3D printing, which is also called additive manufacturing — involves creating a solid object by layering thin slices of material including plastic, metal, ceramic and even food one on top of each other to make the final product.

The process begins with an operator creating a 3D rendering of an image in a computer-aided design (CAD) software program such as 3ds Max from Autodesk. The CAD information is sent to the 3D printer and the printer forms the item by depositing the different materials, one on top of each other in layers, starting with the bottom layer first. In some cases, a light or laser is used to harden the material.

Market Opportunities

3D Prototype printing is being used by a variety of industries for a number of different applications. Industries utilize 3D printers to produce architectural models, automotive prototypes, casings for medical and electronic devices, camera cases, initial parts for first run productions, parts for robots and prototype inventions of all sorts.

On top of these commercial applications, in a basement laboratory at the University of Toronto, a team led by PhD engineering student Lian Leng is developing a similar device to create viable human skin. “We were interested in easing this process of creating organ-scale tissues,” says Leng, referring to the large patches of skin that could be needed to treat extensive burns.

A Dutch architect recently announced plans to construct a house using 3D printing, a technology that has been around for decades but has only entered the public consciousness in the last few years. Janjapp Ruijssenaars, who works with the Amsterdam-based architecture studio Universe Architecture, recently announced his plans for Landscape House; a looping infinity building that he expects will be completed in 2014, according to the Guardian. Expected to cost between $5 million and $7 million, the building will be made from 3D-printed pieces.

Another 3D printing company called Figureprints.com can recreate your favorite World of Warcraft character as a fully detailed 3D replica rivaling the beauty of any miniature figure ever made for $100 and up. Some sculptors use the technology to produce complex shapes for fine arts exhibitions. Opportunities abound everywhere!

Conclusion

3D printers are empowering entrepreneurs to design more innovative products at home, taking some mystery out of the process, and saving them time and money so they can better compete with larger companies. The impact of this technology on small business is huge,” says Tharwat Fouad, president of Anubis 3D, a Mississauga, Ont.-based company that provides and uses 3D printing technology.

Another company called MakerBot has been at the forefront of the move to put 3D printers in the hands of the general public. One of the biggest obstacles has been cost. But the company’s Replicator 2 desktop printer is now selling at a relatively accessible $2,200 price point. MakerBot was listed this week as one of tech blog Fast Company’s top 10 most innovative consumer tech companies with the likes of Apple, Samsung and Google. CEO Bre Pettis said Wednesday that the company’s goals are in line with those voiced by Obama. “We created MakerBot to help innovators iterate faster, more affordably and (to help them) invent more,” Pettis said. “We’re proud to be recognized by the president in his State of the Union address and we’re going to do our part to get it done.”

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