We have come a long way from the printing machine as invented by Gutenberg in 1498 to 3-D printing circa 2008. It seems like one is narrating a scene of an Assimov novel while talking of 3-D printing.How 3d printing works?
3-D printing involves transforming a virtual 3-D model into an actual object. The technology behind it is better known as 'rapid prototyping'. A 3-D printer metamorphosizes a virtual 3-D design or model into cross-sectional physical layers until the object is ready in the solid form. Fine powders are employed for the physical creation of layers. This layer is then filled up with the corresponding cross-sectional image, as in the virtual model.
The process is repeated until the whole object is created. The powders used are usually made of plaster, cornstarch or resins & the various powdered planes are held together by the image printed onto them by the inkjet printer which act as adhesives.
This method is referred to as additive fabrication as it joins together liquid, powder, or sheet materials to form parts; very much opposite to the machine processes, which are subtractive in nature. Mayo, Rhino, Inventor, AutoCAD, ProE are some of the 3D modeling software that are used for downloading the virtual models. The CAD files are converted into 'stl' file format for rapid prototyping to work. The models have to be first assessed and analyzed for suitability before actual replication.
The prototyping may take from several hours to several days, depending on the complexity of the design. The model is finally extracted from the printer & passed through a strong stream of air with the remnants of the fine powder dusted from it .The object thus obtained is further fortified by infiltrating it with wax, thermoset polymer or elastometer.Current Applications & Future Prospects
3-D printers have been around since the '80s but it is only now that they have gained wider acceptance & popularity. Currently they are being used for making facsimiles of buildings for architectural uses, drug molecules for pharma firms & shoes, accessories for fashion companies. High-end printers can also produce metallic parts, which are used in airplanes, cars, surgery, defense etc. There is a growing demand of this technology in artistic and creative fields, education & for making toys for children. When commercially viable 3-d printers will streamline the advertising, marketing & sales functions in firms by producing product prototypes to be used in training & demonstrations modules.
Currently there are five major firms manufacturing 3-d printers. These printers start from around $20,000 for simple versions to more than $100,000 for more complicated ones. Some companies have promised to deliver 3-d printer sets for less than $5000 & make it affordable for the general public. However, as the industry is still in its infancy, it will take a few more years for these firms to fulfill their claims & make the technology commercially viable.
With requisite resource commitment this revolutionary technology promises to replace assembling factories of the future. This cutting edge technology would allow people to unleash their creativity & make things from jewelry, toys to electronic items & consumer durables at home. So folks interesting times are ahead as a whole new ingenious-DIY-3D printer generation beckons us!