Let’s Talk Tech: A Crash Course on 3D Printing
In this week’s tech feature, we explore a production process innovation that is completely upending the way in which we manufacture objects and products. From toys, tools, jewellery and décor, to houses and even artificial body parts – 3D printing is becoming an increasingly effective means of manufacturing and slowly but surely, replacing many traditional production processes. Not too sure what it’s all about? No problem! This post is designed to give you a crash course on how 3D printing works, what it can do, the pro’s and con’s of it, as well as the implications for a developing nation such as South Africa.
3D printing is an additive manufacturing process for creating any 3 dimensional object from a digital model or electronic data source. The process is guided by a computer, which moves a robotic mechanism to create a 3D object, layer by layer, based on the model or data. Now that was quite a mouthful, but in layman’s terms, this means that we can print 3D objects of any shape, from a computer design, with the help of a 3D printer and a clever little process called additive manufacturing.
First conceptualized in the 1980’s, early developers saw the opportunity to print 3D objects using lasers, mechanics and photopolymer materials. Early 3D printer models were extremely expensive, limited in output and required special handling – the process was painstaking and the output was far more expensive to create through 3D printing than through traditional processes. The concept was great, but the technology needed a lot of revision. Later work saw developers able to manufacture parts for cars and aeroplanes using additive manufacturing. But it wasn’t until the 21st century that advanced computer technology and open source projects allowed developers to come up with 3D printers that could accurately manufacture intricate objects. These 3D printers were developed into consumer-friendly versions for homes businesses. The result? Well, just about anything you could imagine in 3 dimensions.
How Does it Work?
The first step is to create a model or blueprint of your desired object. These can be made using programs like Blender, or can be downloaded from sources such as Thingiverse. The next step, is to send this model to the printer. The most common household or business 3D printers make use of a plastic material that is threaded into the device like a string. The printer heats up this plastic, melting it and depositing it onto the printer plate surface where it cools and solidifies instantly. This process continues as the printer creates the object, one layer at a time, until you have a complete object in the desired shape and form.
What Can We 3D Print?
Anything you can imagine! Toys, tools, ornaments, shoes, household items and even guns. As long as the size of the object fits within the printing plate and as long as the software can comprehend the shape and form of the object, the possibilities are endless. Here are some great examples from the 2014 3D Print Show in New York, via Mashable.
With larger, more advanced and industrial 3D printers, the material of the output can be altered, resulting in some pretty amazing products. Vehicle parts made from metal, artificial body parts made from bio-materials, houses made from concrete and food made from chocolate are just a few examples.
A company called Creopop has even gone as far as creating a 3D printing pen, for you to create your own 3D art in any shape or form you desire. Check it out here.
Is 3D Printing A Good Thing?
Yes, for the most part at least. Here are some of the pros and cons.
- Faster manufacturing.
- Less waste in manufacturing.
- Less labour intensive than traditional manufacturing.
- Cheaper products and greater accessibility for consumers.
- Industry growth opportunities.
- Open source sharing of models and blueprints.
- Size and manufacturing limitations.
- Copyright issues and counterfeit goods.
- Loss of jobs in traditional manufacturing sectors.
- Loss of sales for traditional retail (what if everyone can make everything they need from the comfort of their own home!).
- Energy use, emissions and limited materials.
What are the Implications in South Africa?
In a developing nation such as South Africa, there are a number of strong prospects in 3D printing.
Firstly, housing. With South Africa’s level of poverty and increasing budget expenses on RDP housing, 3D printing could be used on a larger scale to develop low-cost housing to replace the cost and labour intensive RDP housing systems. Here’s a great example of manufacturing larger architectural structures and housing in a project called Minibuilders, by IAAC.
Secondly, the market for household products may be an obvious one for any country. But for a developing nation with limited resources, a recyclable and environmentally friendly 3D printing system would have positive implications for consumers, manufacturers, recyclers and the environment. On this note, here’s a project by an Indian company called Protoprint that uses recycled plastic filament to 3D print.
Thirdly, South Africa’s public health sector is one dominated by poor medical facilities and limited yield. Unfortunately, the private healthcare sector with access to more advanced healthcare, medicine and operations is out of financial reach for many South Africans. 3D printing may not have the answer to SA’s healthcare system, but it may prove to be a valuable source of medical products as well as artificial body parts and even organs – that may become more affordable to those in need. Below is just one of many examples of 3D printing in the medical field, presented by France 24. In this video, we see how 3D printing has helped a South African boy, who was born with no fingers on one hand, to have control of an artificial robo-hand made by MakerBot.