Fine Print

I’ll never forget the first time I saw the movie, Jurassic Park. I’d read the Michael Crichton novel so I already knew the story, but I still couldn’t wrap my mind around that first dino scene, where a brachiosaurus casually munches on the uppermost leaves of a forty-foot tree.  The gigantic creature was so lifelike I thought, “Where’d Steven Spielberg get a dinosaur?” In my defense, computer-generated imagery (CGI) was brand-spankin’ new back then.  A ferocious T-Rex looking and moving like the real thing was still jaw-dropping in the 1990s. And I’m having the same reaction to the stuff rolling off 3D printers right now.

A “printed” toy tugboat

If you’re like me you haven’t paid much attention to 3D printing.  You see some of the items a 3D printer can generate and they seem like child’s play.  In fact, 3D printing reminds me of a 1970s toy called “Creepy Crawlers”.  You had these tubes of colored goop you squeezed into metal molds, and then the molds went into an electric oven.  The goop would grow from flat to 3D with heat, and suddenly the oven was spilling out all kinds of bugs and spiders you could drop on your friends.  (There was also consumable goop called “Incredible Edibles”; products to compete with whatever the girls were making in their Easy-Bake ovens).

But I digress.  Here’s my 3D printing naivete in a nutshell: I still think my 2D printer is the more impressive technology, cranking out high-resolution photos and perfectly addressed envelopes.  I mean, whatever would I need a third dimension for?

Yep, I am seriously naive about 3D printing.  The scope of this topic is mind-boggling if you really take the time to understand its potential. Here’s a good example.  Picture a printer as big as your living room.  Picture a printer cartridge of concrete instead of ink.  Now watch the printer build your living room, one horizontal layer at a time.  The printer can also build the rest of your house.  Just add plumbing and electric when it’s done.

“Printed” storage crates

Without getting too far into the weeds, let’s define 3D printing for what it really is: additive manufacturing (AM).  Here’s an easy way to picture the AM process.  When you build a log cabin you lay out the entire foundation of logs for the house – with breaks for the doors – before you add the next layer of logs.  You work your way up a layer of logs at a time, keeping those breaks for the doors, adding breaks for windows, pipes, and such, completing the structure with a sloping roof on top.  Perhaps you add a fireplace in the process; again, layering bricks on top of bricks until you’ve reached the top of the chimney.

That’s pretty much how a 3D printer works.  It “pictures” an object in horizontal layers and “prints” it from the ground up.  3D printing has been around longer than you think.  3D printers were developed as early as the 1970s (preceding your inkjet 2D printer!).  The early versions just had to be manually programmed.  Once we attached a computer and software, 3D printing really came into its own.

Watch the following video of a 3D printer confidently layering a basket weave – it’s mesmerizing:

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/transcoded/5/5d/Hyperboloid_Print.ogv/Hyperboloid_Print.ogv.360p.vp9.webm

The products speak for themselves, of course.  A shortlist of the more cutting-edge printed creations gives you an idea of where our world is heading:

  • Cakes and pastries – The “ink” is baked goods in one nozzle and frosting in another.  Design it on your computer screen and then “print”.  It’s like the Easy-Bake Oven on steroids.  Only you don’t need the oven.
    3D-printed confectionery from Ukrainian chef/architect Dinara Kasko
  • Bones – No, not some plastic or other polymer designed to replicate bones, actual bones.  It’s called bioprinting – the fabrication of natural tissue using cells and other building blocks, and it’s coming soon to a clinic near you.  Don’t worry how long a broken bone will take to heal; just replace it!
  • Buildings – Forget about building that log cabin one layer at a time.  Your 3D printer will do the whole job for you (and it’ll still look like a log cabin).  Your printer can also build sturdier houses out of concrete.  This one’s on the market in Riverhead, New York, for $300K.
  • Vehicles – 3D printers have already created boats, kayaks, and most of the makeup of cars and trucks.  Long ago I was impressed with the robotics of the Ford Motor Company, employed on a long assembly line to build cars one part at a time.  A 3D printer can essentially do the same job standing still, no assembly line required.
  • You – I could speculate on the potential for a full bioprint but let’s avoid that scary future for now and just say, a 3D printer can create a figurine to look exactly like you.  Think of it as printing a 3-D photograph.

If your mind is not blown by what you’ve just read, consider this: 3D is already passe.  That’s right, we’ve already moved on to 4D printing.  4D – at least with printing – refers to materials that can change shape with time, temperature, or some other type of stimulation.  A good example would be a printed window shade, sitting tight and virtually unnoticed at the top of the window in daylight but expanding to full cover as darkness falls.

Don’t know about you but this level of technology makes my head hurt.  When I’m done with this post I’m gonna push “print” and generate a nice 2D copy for my files.  Oh, and maybe watch Jurassic Park again.

Some content sourced from the 7/24/2020 Forbes article, “What Can 3D Printing Be Used For?”, and Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”.

14 thoughts on “Fine Print

  1. Having a little involvement in the vintage car world, i have seen a fair amount of 3-D printing. Being able to easily recreate car parts that have not been manufactured in 60+ years is a great help. And once the part has been scanned and one made, it is really easy to make more for fellow car guys. Jay Leno has enough cars that he can justify having a 3-D printer of his own. To bad he doesn’t own a car like mine so could bum parts off of him!

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    1. I watched the whole video myself. I only needed the first thirty seconds to get the idea but it was so mesmerizing I just had to watch the full basket weave. “Spirograph” in 3D!

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Like you, we’ll cave to the purchase of a “smart” TV one of these days. Trying to get max value out of our smallish Samsung in the meantime (coupled with Apple TV). Seems to work for our entertainment needs – we’re streaming just about everything we watch these days. . Now I just need to drop our overpriced satellite service. Network TV has little to no value to us anymore.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. We bought a 55in smart TV (used a lifetime of Amex points…) and connected it to an OTA (over the air antenna.) We only get the 4 local stations, but the picture is superb and we cut the ties to Satellite.

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  2. Excellent! An as-yet-unfulfilled 2021 resolution is to cut ties with our satellite service (once I can figure out the darned live sports). I am inspired, Margy 🙂

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  3. The only 3D printer experience I have had is at the dentist, where a 3D printer makes an exact copy of your tooth out of a chunk of porcelain, and continuous high stream jets of water – it takes about 20 minutes and the hygienist let me watch. It was very noisy too. The bill came to $1400, but it’s same day service – no more wearing a temporary crown and returning two weeks later for the real deal. I was impressed, except for the price.

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  4. Oh wow, Joni, I guess my own dentist is not as “cutting edge” (ha) as I thought. I had a crown replaced recently and it was the old-school method: a temporary and return two weeks later. Great use for 3D printing (and quick cash!)

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  5. I had no idea of the price for a 3D printer Dave – that’s mind boggling. I have to admit that I knew nothing about 3D printing until the pandemic and when the need for ventilators came up, so the automotive industry here in Detroit was ordered by Trump to retrofit their plants to crank out these items as quickly as possible. That boggled my mind how they could switch gears and do that so quickly and efficiently. Since then, many local manufacturing plants have followed suit for individual PPE like face shields, but mostly Plexiglas barriers of all shapes and sizes. I am impressed hearing how artificial limbs are created by 3D printing, which before hearing this and the ventilator/PPE production, I was inclined to think that 3D printers were just sophisticated kid stuff.

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  6. PPE is a powerful example of the benefits of 3D printing, Linda. I knew about the auto industry jumping into production but didn’t consider 3D printers being part of the process. And yes, any version of a 3D printer (designed to create something substantial) is cost-prohibitive. Like most things I expect them to be more affordable several years from now. We’ll wake up one morning and realize the technology is suddenly commonplace, just like our smartphones.

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