Imagine a world in which you could print anything that you desired, needing only the aid of a computer and a fancy printer. Well you can stop imagining, the time has come and in fact you could own such a printer right now. 3D printers are not just the future any more, they are here and are even affordable.
So what exactly is a 3D printer? A 3D printer is a printer that can print three-dimensional objects. You can upload a picture or scan an object that takes into account the three-dimensional form of an object and the printer will reproduce that object in its full form. So you always wanted a sculpture that you saw at some museum, no problem just take enough pictures to take into account its 3D form and you can print your own version. In fact, this is what Cosmo Wenman has been doing for a while. He is even posting his pictures free on the site of Makerbot, one of the makers of 3D printers. So when there is a 3D printer in everyone's home, they will be able to recreate any masterpiece that they wish.
3D printers go even further than just sculptures; you can even print objects that have moving parts. For instance you can scan an adjustable wrench into the printer and out pops an exact working replica. No more need to buy extra tools, just buy it once and then print the extra copies that you need.
This seems too good to be true. Exactly how does a 3D printer work? A 3D printer builds the object layer by layer out of a special type of plastic or sometimes clay and even metal. The plastic is generally either acrylonitrile butadiene styrene or polylactic acid or both. The print head then prints the bottom layer and moves slightly higher (usually in tens of micrometers, a micrometer being 1 millionth of a meter) to build the next layer and so on. Most printers only have one print head, and thus to get multiple colors you have to change the color mid-print, though some now have a second print head for two-color printing. There are other types of printers that use a laser to carve the surface of whatever you are trying to make.
Of course the available 3D printers vary in their abilities as much as they vary in cost. Some printers have gone into the sub-$500 range, while others cost upward of $2,000, but this is a large improvement from the $20,000 price tag several years ago and prices have continued dropping. The printer cartridges have become much less expensive, even coming down in the range of a regular printer, sub-$40 range and you can buy 2.2 pounds of PLA for instance.
The exciting thing about 3D printers is that people have come up with amazing ideas on how they can be used. For instance they may become a staple in hospitals some day because people have tried and succeeded in making animal tissue that can replace damaged tissue in the body. This is an amazing advance because now you don't have to try to find a good match, you can just print yourself a perfect match of the tissue.
Of course every advance in technology has its downside and 3D printers are no different. The fact that you can print pretty much anything that you can imagine has led to grey areas, such as 3D printing of weapons, specifically working guns. This feat has actually been achieved and the blueprints for such a working gun were released. The U.S. Justice department quickly forced the group (Defense Distributed) to take down the blueprints, but this is of course a negative mark on 3D printing.
In all the positives of 3D printing certainly outweigh the negatives and I am sure that in the near future 3D printers will be commonplace in most American households.
Jeremie Fish is a Wilmington resident and Clarkson University graduate student. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.