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What Is 3D Printing – And Can I Make Anything Really Cool With It?

Answering the second half of that question is easy – yes, you can make a lot of very cool stuff with 3D printing technology, and we’ll have some examples for you shortly. As for what 3D printing is and how it works, the explanation is somewhat complicated. Hang on - here we go.

3D Printing: You Need More Than A Desktop Printer

3d printing in progress

The basic technology for 3D printing has been around since 1986, and over the years the engineering and manufacturing worlds have called it stereolithography, desktop fabrication or additive manufacturing.

Here’s the easiest way to think about the process: imagine that you need a block. You could find or create a two-dimensional picture of a block and print it onto a piece of paper, but it would come out flat. However, what if you printed out hundreds of pictures of that block, piled them on top of each other, and glued them together? Presto - you’d end up with a three-dimensional block.

That’s sort of what 3-D printing does. The process involves printing very thin cross-sections of a three-dimensional object, layer by layer, so when assembled they become the final product. Unlike our paper block, though, 3-D printed objects can be made from more than 100 different materials including plastic, ceramics and metal.

3D Printing Machine printing a piece of plastic

So far, so good – but how do you print an object that’s more complicated than a block? For that, you need more than a desktop printer and a .jpg or .gif file copied from a website or drawn on a tablet. The design process requires what’s called a CAD (computer aided design) file, which is created with special 3D modeling software or a 3D scanner. The file, with the design sliced into thousands of horizontal layers, is sent to a 3D printer where the layers are printed on top of each other to build the final product.

Obviously you need specific software, scanners and printers for this process, but prices are already affordable for larger companies and the technology is now easily accessible for individuals. You can design in Blender or Google SketchUp, download CAD files from places like 3D Warehouse, and use 3D printing services like Shapeways to start making 3D stuff on your own, on the cheap.

Uses For 3D Printing

3D-printed objects aren’t a common part of life yet, but they will be soon. Some commercial and military jets are already flying with printed replacement parts, there are customizable smartphone cases you can download and print, and custom-fit 3D shoes are now available for athletes. Perhaps the most important uses to date, though, are in medicine. Many surgeons now use 3D-printed models of their patients to prepare for complicated surgery, and the group E-NABLE has created printed prosthetics to give hundreds of crippled children new arms or hands. 3D technology is either being used or tested by nearly every industry, with many planning to roll new products out soon.

3D printer printing a cyan plastic cube from computer

As you’d probably guess, there are some less useful but much cooler things you can already do with 3D printing. The ChefJet 3D printer allows you to print desserts using cocoa butter and sugar, the jewelry company American Pearl will print you a wedding ring in silver, gold or platinum (the gems aren’t printed, of course), apps like Blokify let you print toys that your kids design, 3D dresses and shoes that travelers can print at their destination can be purchased at Cubify – and whether you think it’s cool or tacky, there are numerous sites where you can create and order 3D selfies. As for the "extra cool" factor, how about a 3D Aston Martin DB5? That’s what producers of the film "Skyfall" blew up in the James Bond movie; after all, you wouldn’t expect them to destroy a real one, would you? 

Any new technology is bound to create controversy. The biggest issue involving 3D printing focused on the “Liberator,” an open-source 3D gun released by an American pro-firearms group in 2013. The group then released files allowing people to create 3D magazines and ammunition, and other 3D guns followed close behind. The US government forced the group to remove the 3D gun files from its website, but they’re still available on sharing sites, and legislation has been proposed to ban the use of 3D printers to create guns.

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