I’m no expert, but I know a little about 3-D printing. I mean, back in the day when Parametric and SolidWorks were ‘the thing’ in the 3-D modeling CAD world, I was patiently following the development of realtime prototyping solutions. They were pricey but still far cheaper than having models made by hand or with CNC-controlled machines. Back then, the devices available either used selective laser sintering of powders or UV curable liquid stereolithograpy. That was over 10 years ago.
It’s different now. 3-D printers for hobbyists and home users are quite inexpensive. I saw a u-build-it kit today for $299 and a complete unit for $399. For any serious 3-D desktop printing, you’ll want something a little more professional. Consider a device like a $1300 Cube model from Cubify or the $2200 MakerBot Replicator 2. Most can print with recyclable ABS plastic or biodegradable PLA polymer, so they’re ‘green’. The ice scraper I will be using to clear off my frozen windshield in the morning is made of ABS, so it’s tough material.
You would think the printed parts are solid, but they don’t have to be. That would be wasteful in terms of time to print, ABS/PLA material cost and printer wear and tear. More importantly, it’s fairly common to make parts that are ‘filled’ with a honeycomb type cell structure. This increases strength and stability vs a hollow part and potentially rigidity vs a solid part. This is important. If you think about it, there is no other way to produce a structurally sound, sealed lightweight part. One which could potentially have other parts connected to, or inside of itself. Parts like radios to connect to the outside world so it can participate in the ‘internet of things‘. Hey, if 300+ sharks can tweet, why not.
The picture shows an example. Oh, right, I should be more specific. If you aren’t aware, it’s possible to do a 3-D ultrasound scan of a fetus/baby while still in utero . It’s ‘the new thing’. It’s not at all a far stretch to say it’s also possible to print out baby’s unborn face as a physical keepsake for the mama. I just googled it, and there’s a Japanese company which used to sell glass encased ‘3-D fetus printouts’. Apparently they stopped due to potential legal implications. Now they provide 3-D printouts of unborn baby faces. Clever. I’d buy one of those rather than a picture any day. Take a look.
Anyone can buy a 3-D printer, download a layer stack-up from a site like Thingiverse, copy it to a thumb drive and press GO. Here’s a sample of a cool printable thing that you probably would’t be able to buy if only because you couldn’t find one. I’m sure the astronauts on the International Space Station will appreciate this soon too.
The resolution of these new printers is on the magnitude of a sheet of paper for the z-dimension layers – about 100 microns or about 4 thousandths of an inch (0.0039). In the direction of print head motion, X and Y, the accuracy is 11 microns or 0.0004 inches. That’s hardly perceptible. Current tech produces fairly realistic parts, especially with some minor post processing.
The future of 3-D print will be amazing. Especially when the parts are actually living.