While it only took the world by storm about ten years ago, there’s a technology that’s existed for over forty years and can create virtually anything you can imagine.
3D printers use “a manufacturing process that creates a physical object from a digital model file“. The object is designed within software that allows you to create and render fully 3D models. The technology adds layer upon layer of material (often thermoplastic) and shapes it into a complete object. Through light and/or heat, this process allows it to be developed much more affordably and efficiently.
So how exactly did this technology come to be? More importantly, where might it be heading? Let’s dive in and take a look!
The idea behind the 3D printer’s manufacturing process can be traced to a short story written in 1945, but it wasn’t until 1981 that experiments with thermoplastic had begun: “a photosensitive resin was polymerized by a UV light“, allowing the plastic to melt and solidify into a new shape.
That said, the first 3D printer wasn’t created until 1987. The machine made the process of adding complex layers to an object much faster, though the process was incredibly expensive due to the fact that this was essentially a brand new technology. Popular plastic polymers tended to warp as they set and the machines also cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to develop, making them far from accessible to the general public.
The 1990s saw experiments with a selective laser melting (SLM) process that brought forth a new evolution in 3D printers. One of the coolest innovations during this period was the ability to melt and mold metals.
Unfortunately, the machines were still massive and unaffordable for anyone but large companies and research institutions. The 2000s saw these machines become more precise in addition to the numerous developments in the fields of bioengineering and medicine. In fact, some 3D printers such as the ‘Darwin’ RepRap 3D Printer were actually able to replicate themselves!
What was initially a simple idea in 1945 had finally come to fruition. The world was almost ready for the 3D printer to come to the home market… it just needed more time.
Modern Practices of 3D Printing
Today, modern 3D printers are compact and incredibly accessible to the general public. They’ve also evolved from producing miniature figurines and toy cars to many more practical applications.
For example, prosthetic limbs have been crafted through 3D printing methods since 2008, allowing children born without specific limbs to have a better quality of life. The best part – it doesn’t take several months for the prosthetic to be designed for the child!
Additionally, 3D bioprinting (creating living tissue and organs using bioinks primarily made of cells) is on the rise. Scientists have already successfully 3D printed skin that replaces skin grafts, ensuring a less painful and faster recovery. Other medical breakthroughs are still years away, unfortunately: while 3D printed hearts, livers, and lungs have been successfully reproduced, which is great practice for medical students or even for replacing animal testing, these artificial organs aren’t quite ready for organ transplants.
Similarly, some 3D printers are actually capable of printing food! Everything from candy to pizza to synthetic meat products can be created by mixing ingredients into one of these devices. This would definitely free up some counter space, particularly with the diminished prep work required, and can speed up the time it takes to prepare food. It can also prevent us from wasting food “because it can more closely meet exactly what a consumer wants as measured by calories, ingredients, or shape“.
This is only the tip of the iceberg, of course. Many parts in racing cars developed by the Williams Formula One company are generated via 3D printers. Some recent buildings have been 3D printed rather than traditionally constructed, making them cheaper, much faster to build, and better for the environment (in terms of letting no parts added go to waste). There’s even a habitat on Mars that can withstand the extreme conditions there, and it was constructed by robots using 3D printing methods!
With all of this in mind, it’s not hard to believe that our near future will largely consist of physical materials that are developed through digital files. And in case you’re interested in learning more about the history of 3D printers, take a look at this article!
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