SciTech

3-D printing allows quick, easy creation of detailed models

Many people have built at least one annoying model in their lives that was composed entirely of small pieces that would get lost or broken easily. That frustration may be a thing of the past with the development of the 3-D printing process. 3-D printing is where a printer physically builds an object based on a source file from a 3-D scanner. This process is similar to what a normal printer does; instead of printing a page line by line, with small dots put together, a 3-D printer adds small pieces of a plastic-like material together to form a physical and working object. Although this process has existed for decades, the fast-paced evolution of technology is allowing these printers to be built more quickly and cheaply. What previously would have cost the consumer approximately $20,000 is now available at a much more affordable price.

The basic secret behind 3-D printing is the laying down of successive layers of materials shaped like the cross-section of the desired shape to eventually create the finished product. 3-D printers come in many forms, with most of them differing in the type of materials they use to create their models. Powders and polymers are commonly used to create the finished products.

One form of 3-D printing right now is inkjet printing, which uses powder or resins to lay down successive layers of material to build up the shape. The advantages of this technology are that it allows the user to create full-color models, and it is faster than the other technologies currently available. 3-D microfabrication is also becoming more prevalent. This technology can be used to create extremely small structures of less than 100 nanometers in size, and it can also be used to make structures with moving and interlocking parts. This technology works by using a laser to trace out the desired product in a block of gel. The places where the laser strikes undergo a change in their chemical structure that makes them more susceptible to hardening. The remaining gel can simply be washed away to leave the desired product. Research is being done on more materials, such as clay, that could possibly be used in these printers.

The reach of these devices isn’t just limited to offices, either. 3-D printers can be, and have been, made at home. Those interested can use resources such as the RepRap Project, where people can download open-source specifications of 3-D printers, which they can use to build their own device.

This availability of 3-D printers, when combined with the number of fields that 3-D printers can influence, brings up many questions about how these printers will affect the world we live in. Like most new and innovative technologies, which often inadvertently disrupt business models, 3-D printing could have profound economic consequences. The U.S. government and other organizations are currently trying to update copyright laws to ensure that intellectual property can be protected both today and in future technology upgrades for products such as the 3-D printer.

Stephen Spear, an economics professor in the Tepper School of Business, offered the following as an example of a problem that might arise with the advent of 3-D printers: “Three-dimensional printers have the potential to impact a number of industries engaged in what we might call ‘brick and mortar’ production activities, as well as the design industries that support them.”

These 3-D printers have the potential to eventually replicate objects that currently take many people and special tools to build. The precision of the machinery and the potential that people might use it to create unregulated copies of objects could be points of concern for many in the near future. These printers could cause changes in existing economic balances. “It forces a re-examination of the existing business model,” Spear said. The battles that will have to be fought might resemble the ones currently being fought by the music industry to retain control of its products. The several uses that this technology could have, along with the fact that it could also cause many changes in current copyright laws, makes 3-D printers a technology to watch. They will impact our future in ways we have not thought possible.