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.
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.
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:
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.
- 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.