Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Star Trek Replicator? Not yet, but 3D printing is hot!

Until recently, 3-D printing was limited to only those who could afford the industrial machines. The typical 3-D printer works layering melted plastic with a nozzle, controlled by data from a computer program, creating three-dimensional objects. Some printers can build objects made of other materials, including glass and metal. The less-expensive personal devices and open-source nature of many designs (files you download off the inter-webs) to allow users to customize their own things -- think personalized iPhone cases and jewelry or those shoe gewgaws kids like.
Sites like this are popping up to help the hobbyist or budding engineer design and print prototypes or even finished products. You can create and share 3d models at sites like this.
A variants on the plastics "toner" is selective laser sintering (SLS). This builds objects by laying down a fine layer of powder and then using the laser to selectively fuse some of its granules together -- and output objects using a wide range of powdered materials, such as wax, polystyrene, nylon, glass, ceramics, stainless steel, titanium, aluminium and various alloys. During printing, non-bonded powder granules support the object as it is constructed. Once printing is complete, almost all excess power is able to be recycled.
3D printers capable of outputting in color and multiple materials will continue to improve to a point where functional products will be able to be output, one at a time at home, downloaded from the net. Not quite downloaded coffee, but pretty darned cool!

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