A Quick Primer On What 3D Printing Is (And What It Is Not)

In terms of “Is it the future yet?” 3D printers are somewhere between a LaserJet and a Star Trek style replicator.
Publish date:
June 30, 2014
science, technology, 3d printing

The current “it” technology is the 3D printer. Every time you turn around, there's a new application. They are being used to make food, sex toys, body parts, even makeup. It seems almost magical that one piece of technology could have so many varied uses.

In terms of “Is it the future yet?” 3D printers are somewhere between a LaserJet and a Star Trek style replicator. They can make a lot of things, but you have to tell them what to make and supply the appropriate material. Unlike the replicators you see in Star Trek, which rearrange sub-atomic particles to make new objects, a 3D printer needs the correct starting material; you can’t put chicken in in one of those makeup 3D printers and expect it to still make makeup.

At its simplest, 3D printing or (the notably lamer sounding) “additive manufacturing,” is the process of using electronic data to make a three-dimensional object through the successive layering of material; a 3D printer is a robot that builds objects. The appeal is that you can design an object -- a small vase shaped like a dinosaur, perhaps? -- on your computer or tablet, send it to the printer, and the printer will make it. It's not instantaneous; like a regular printer lays ink on a page, this printer lays down its material (plastic or nylon or sugar or whatever) layer by layer, in a methodical fashion.

In the case of the makeup 3D printer Mink, the only thing that is truly customizable is the color. The substrates –- powders, creams, and liquids that hold and distribute the pigment -– still have to be purchased; The printer cannot synthesize these substrates on its own. Mink is still an undeniably cool piece of technology –- color customization being limitless and all –- but it doesn't mean that you’ll “never have to buy makeup again”; you’ll just be buying an un-pigmented version of it. (You would also need to purchase the “ink” or pigments that are added to the substrate.)

3D printing can be mystifying simply because it has so many uses. If “successive layering of material,” sounds vague to you, that’s because it is. To really understand 3D printing, it’s best to see it in action. Let’s watch some YouTube videos and look at some pictures.

The Pen

Though this isn’t technically a 3D “printer,” the 3Doodler allows the user to create three-dimensional objects by “writing” them in the air. It basically makes you the printer. It's fairly crude, but pretty neat, and could be used to make models, toys, or jewelry (if you like plastic jewelry). I personally wouldn't get one because I have the fine motor skills of a drunk toddler and little to no artistic ability, but I could see it being fun for the dexterous.

General Objects

Do you need a Garden Gnome that meets very exacting specifications? If so, the MakerBot Replicator Desktop 3D Printer may be right for you! This is a pretty slick desktop model, with apps that let you watch it print from anywhere on your phone, really great resolution (100 microns, to be exact), and "cloud capabilities" (of course).

I'd probably just use it to make really ornate spoons.

For Candy

Now THIS is something that excites me greatly. If I have a culinary downfall, it is decorating. Like my Aunt Mae before me, I cook "good" but not "pretty." The ChefJet series of 3D printers is limited in that it can only make objects out of sugar, but oh what sugar. Just think of what this could mean for the pastry business.

*fans self*

All photos via the sugar lab.

Though these printers won't be for sale until the latter part of the year (Christmas present, kthx), you can order delights such as Geometric Peppermints and Neon Ombre Sours at Cubify.

Medical Miracles

In what some are calling "great news for mice," we can print ears now. We can also print skin, blood vessels, bones, and kidneys, though some assembly is required.

Each part varies in materials and production, so let's focus on one and talk about ears. According to Popular Science:

Bioengineers take a 3-D scan of a child's ear, design a seven-part mold in the SolidWorks CAD program, and print the pieces. The mold is injected with a high-density gel made from 250 million bovine cartilage cells and collagen from rat tails (the latter serves as a scaffold). After 15 minutes, the ear is removed and incubated in cell culture for several days. In three months, the cartilage will have propagated enough to replace the collagen.

Okay, so maybe it's not the best news for rodents; we are still extracting collagen from their tails, but at least we're not growing ears on their backs?

As you can see from the above description, "printing an ear" isn't as simple as printing a vase or printing lipstick. The starting material (cells and collagen) still have to be extracted, and the entire process takes months to complete. It is still amazing and more advanced than anything I had ever hoped to see in my lifetime, but people should appreciate that it's not as simple as pressing a button and *DING* "Here's your new ear!"

Getting Off

As with anything else, there is a sexual application for 3D printing. This infographic breaks down some of the pros and cons for printing sex toys, but the thing that caught my attention was this:

3D printers work by combining hundreds of layers less than 0.1 mm thick. These layers give any printed sex toys a rough, uncomfortable finish.

No, thank you.

I guess there is some appeal in making a dildo the exact size and shape you desire, but you are again limited by materials (plus it's just kind of expensive).

These are just a few of applications for this evolving technology and, while a 3D printer isn't quite as bad-ass as a replicator, it's still a major advance in our ability to make things. What applications are you most excited about? Don't you want some of that printed candy? Would you eat a 3D-printed chicken nugget?