There are few modern technologies more exciting than 3D printing. Think about it. You can turn filament into a functional beer stein, goo into a remote control car, or build a to-scale model of your living room to figure out where to put your couch.
Or, you can build a 3D printable prosthetic hand that can grip for less than ten dollars, like the e-NABLE Project does for kids in need.
In China, they’re building actual houses.
Right now in Kentucky, scientists are working on how to 3D print with human cells using a BioAssembly Bot. Kidneys, livers, and heart valves could, someday soon, be made from cells from the very people who need transplants.
See? I told you this was exciting.
Meet John Biehler
John Biehler is a photographer, artist, 3D printing enthusiast, tech and travel blogger, author of 3D Printing with Autodesk and owner of Cactus Studios where he does 3D printing consulting, public speaking, and workshop-leading. He graciously agreed to be my Sherpa into this world of modern-day alchemy.
Nichole Elizabeth DeMeré: How did you get into 3D printing?
John Biehler: I first came across 3D printing at South by Southwest [SXSW] in 2009. They were 3D printing shot glasses with this new machine they had just developed. I was blown away and bought my first 3D printer immediately. Back then, they didn’t come pre-assembled, so I had to learn how to solder among other things. It took me a week to make my MakerBot, and my first projects were blobby and gross.
NED: What do you need to know to start – and avoid that “blobby and gross” stage?
JB: You need to know CAD software for 3D printing – I spent a lot of late nights reading, YouTubing and just playing, figuring out how to design something.
NED: What printers do you use?
JB: MakerBot is my workhorse; it can print anything the size of a loaf of bread or smaller. The Litto can print a loaf-sized object vertically. When buying a 3D printer, you want to base the decision on two things:
- What materials does it print with
- How big can it print
3D printing is very accessible. When the patents for some of the 3D printing technologies expired a few years ago, they became public domain, which meant anyone could take the plans, go to the hardware store and make one. A professor at Cambridge even made a 3D printer that could replicate itself and print parts to improve itself.
Some of the materials you can use are:
- ABS plastic (same thing Legos are made out of) – it’s a petrochemical that has a nasty smell.
- PLA smells like cotton candy or maple syrup since it’s corn starch-based.
- Protopasta carbon fiber filaments are incredibly strong – it’s PLA mixed with carbon fiber.
- Metal printing is the Holy Grail for 3D printing people. Protopasta makes a stainless steel filament that comes out a little rough, but you can polish it and it takes on the look and feel of stainless steel..
- Photosensitive resin (aka. “Goo”) – Formlabs Form 1 printer or Autodesk Ember use laser lights and goo to draw one layer at a time using the UV laser and goo that is reactive to light.
- The ZCorp Spectrum machine uses powder. An inkjet head sprays a binding agent onto the powder, making it solid like a glue, and builds up one layer at a time. It’s very messy and expensive, and when the object comes out, it’s delicate like an eggshell and has to be hardened with glue.
Essentially, there are all kinds of 3D printers and all kinds of materials. New ones are coming out all the time. ChefJet prints in sugar, so you could make a gum drop that’s a full-color replica of your head. Anything is possible.
For beginners, there are a number of machines out now and the prices have been dropping. My first kit five years ago was $1,500. Now PrintrBot makes small ones for under $400.
NED: What do you want people to know about 3D printing?
JB: The other day I read about a guy in Africa who has found a way to repurpose the equipment in an early 2000s computer and use it to build a 3D printer. Can you imagine the impact of 3D printing on developing countries? The accessibility of it, and the creativity of it, are the two most exciting things to me about 3D printing. There’s very little waste; you only print what you need; anyone can do it; and there’s the potential to reduce or eliminate your carbon footprint. Another person I read about recently found a way to recycle CDs into 3D printer filament. The possibilities are endless.
We don’t live in the Star Trek universe yet, but there are many clever things people are figuring out how to do.
4 Fun Facts About 3D Printing
- Nike prototypes their shoes with a 3D printer.
- One firm in China will 3D print you a wedding dress.
- Easy-Cheese printing has been done.
- The PancakeBot prints any design you want in pancake mix onto a hot griddle. You can even do shading with some pancake parts cooking longer. And, it’s just $150.
The Future of 3D Printing
- Voxel8 can print wiring inside a machine as well as the exterior. They drop in the circuit board and it prints the wiring that comes out of it. In the future, you could 3D print your smartphone with everything already inside it. That could change how personal electronics are designed and manufactured. You could go into an Apple store and they could print the phone for you on the spot, instead of manufacturing in China.
- The 3D printed houses in China used the same infrastructure we use with melted plastic, but scaled up to pump concrete mixed with recycled waste materials instead. The construction crew printed 10 buildings in 24 hours. They’re not pretty, but the implications for developing countries or for disaster relief is unlimited. The only thing they couldn’t print is the roof.
- A concrete contractor in the states designed a play castle for his kid that he designed a 3D printer to create. He could print all kinds of different shapes and structures that would be difficult with traditional building methods. Rounded and curved structures are much easier.
- Made in Space put a 3D printer on the International Space Station. They’re testing what happens when you print in zero gravity, and the goal is to use moon dust as materials to 3D print anything astronauts need, without having to launch materials from Earth.
- In Glasgow, Professor Lee Cronin has been looking at 3D printing pharmaceuticals. It may be possible to print the specific dosage and chemical combination for your body’s specific requirements.
- In the very near future, you’ll be able to go to a car dealership, pick the options you want, and someone in back will 3D print it for you and you can drive it away the next day.
- Can’t find jeans that fit? Imagine going to a clothing store, getting scanned and having clothes printed for you in the store, mapped to your body.
To learn more about 3D printing, follow John Biehler on Twitter @JohnBiehler.