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3-D Printing Is Here

The disruptive new technology that could fundamentally change the marketplace

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In the not-too-distant future, when we buy products, they may arrive not in boxes but as 3-D files in our email. Objects will be designed or downloaded by individuals and printed out on 3-D printers at home, in 3-D print shops or in community spaces. There's already a push among some library advocates to bring 3-D printers into libraries, in large part because of the technology's democratizing potential.

This is a very different business model from the current manufacturing/ shipping/retail model, which relies on factories to build products and shipping companies to deliver them to consumers. Whether stores and warehouses will become things of the past remains to be seen, but being able to fabricate objects in our homes definitely presents interesting possibilities.

Already, remarkable things are being done with 3-D printing. NASA has tested a 3-D printer on the International Space Station, where printing tools and parts makes a lot more sense than waiting for the next delivery. An 83-year-old Belgian woman with an infection in her jaw was recently outfitted with a custom, 3-D-printed jawbone. And the Smithsonian is printing museum-quality replicas of statues for traveling exhibits. Among those already printed: a life-size version of the Thomas Jefferson statue that resides permanently in Monticello, Va.

An even more mind-boggling application of the technology is "bioprinting," which really is the printing of live tissues and organs. Some in the medical-technology field believe that the idea of people dying while on an organ wait-list could one day be a thing of the past. While years away from clinical trials, organs have been "printed," and the technology shows great promise.

At some point, we may even have collection bins for waste products that separate materials into chemical elements and store them for future use. In the same way that an inkjet printer stores colors for printing, a 3-D printer (theoretically) could store elements and combine them to print objects on demand.

The Star Trek replicator seems to be getting much, much closer.

How It Works

When describing the actual 3-D printing process, a good analogy to use is that of an inkjet printer, which takes information and prints it onto paper, in two dimensions, line by line, from the top down. In a similar fashion, 3-D printers take information and print it, in three dimensions, layer by layer, from the bottom up.

In the past, manufacturing has largely employed a subtractive process, meaning that you start with something and cut away at it—with tools such as lathes—to get an end product. 3-D printing is an additive process, meaning that you start with nothing and build something.

The limitations of subtractive machining, including the need for a trained machinist, fall away with 3-D printing. Things that are difficult or impossible to machine in one piece using a subtractive process, such as complex geometric shapes, cylinders within cylinders or curved holes in a metal block, can all be done with 3-D printing.

For hobbyists, 3-D printers, including the MakerBot Thing-O-Matic and the UP! printer, work by heating and printing inexpensive materials such as plastics (including bioplastics) and chocolate (yes, friends, we are printing chocolate). Printers in this range can be picked up for under $2,000. But the price is dropping fast.

Recent Kickstarter campaigns have booted the Printrbot and MakiBot printers from prototype to market, and they both come in under $500. Like inkjet printers, the price on 3-D printers will presumably drop until they hit a point that makes them standard computer peripherals.

"These technologies are like the early days of computers or laser printers," says the MakersFactory's Chris Yonge. "At the generally affordable level, they're still rather crude but at the same time they're very flexible, and they offer a huge amount of promise for the next generation."

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