If you are a fan of TV shows, you probably came across the “The Big Bang Theory”. In one of the latest episodes of the newest season, we see the 3D printer featured, where Howard and Raj buy a 3D printer and create “Action figures” of their own. There have been many allusions to 3D printers before in other media, but never before did we see one that really is now a reality.
Whatever the case, it is very interesting to see this on popular media. This is right with the time of the increasing prevalence of consumer targeted commercial 3D printing machines. No longer are 3D printing machines limited to rich companies and government funded laboratories. Small businesses, Universities and small labs can now afford to buy them commercially. The question is, why would you want to have one? (besides printing your own action figures). Well let me discuss for you the uses and the future of 3D printing.
One of the first and most probably primary uses of a 3D printer is the production of a draft product or component item. While now, showing 3D models in the computer is already standard fare in most research and development departments, an actual three dimensional and tangible product is of course a lot easier and better to represent. People can of course reliable understand the scale of these item drafts, and make “real world” assessments on the strengths and weaknesses of such a design.
As an example look at the image from 3DPrinting.org below. As you can see, these are printed out cogwheels. These drafts can be any kind of product design you want, and people can easily judge if you are on the right track with your item or if it needs size or design adjustments.
Of course, beyond just DRAFT items, you can also test out real world prototypes. Although the parts of your prototype will be printed in plastic (or whatever material the 3D printer will be using), you can assemble it in scale and then test out if the parts do jive and work together correctly. The great thing about this of course is you can then spot PHYSICAL errors or incompatibilities of your prototypes without spending extra on creating the first prototype that may not work. With the plastic prototype, you can at least discover and anticipate the potential problems long before the actual fully detailed prototype is done and paid for.
In the image below from Harvard, you see a nice little device that can be printed via a 3D printer. Along with some simple additions, you can setup and test out the physical interactions between the parts of the prototype. So you can save a lot of money as you do not have to pay for all those other prototypes in full since you can test out some of the bugs and kinks early before revisions are called for.
Of course, another implication of 3D printing technology is that it can be used to determine the physical compatibility of products or components. If a component for example needs to fit into another product or component, you can already test out its compatibility immediately by printing them on the 3D printer.
You can then more easily design the item because you see the problems that might be preventing it to working with those other components. Since it is happening in the “real world” it is far easier to see if it will be compatible to the other real world components that it should be working with. In the image below, they printed “Lego Technic Compatible” beams. This of course meant that their custom printed beams can be applied to any Lego Technic product of their liking.
Finally, the future of 3D printing also will be determined by team collaborations. As we all know, globalization has increased the reach of our work teams, with some jobs be outsourced to other countries.
A 3D printer of course will allow manufacturers and their R&D teams to be able to collaborate even though they are miles away from each other. They can send each other the prototype files in 3D and print them on the other end for a team member. Instead of visualizing it, both can print, augment and send each other the finished draft for better testing. This is faster than let us say sending each other the prototype, decreasing project lengths considerably.
With that, you should now realize the true implications of commercially available 3D printers. It is something you should look forward to, especially if you are in an industry where 3D copies of something is routinely needed for business. If you cannot BUY a 3D printer, you might want to ask more local firms or online firms such as printplace.com if they can print your items in 3D. Since it is “getting” pretty widespread, you probably should already see those 3D printers in a shop near you.