Wednesday, July 22, 2015

3D printing: What is it, how it works, and why should you care.

My 3D printer and a few creations
So maybe you’ve heard about 3D printing, maybe a friend of a friend got one, but what is it really? Remember the Star Trek replicator -- press a couple of buttons and anything your heart desires appears? For those of you who haven’t seen Star Trek, a 3D printer gives you the ability print a three-dimensional object very much the same way as you would print a document for work. For the home 3D printer this is typically plastic objects (think toys, replacement broken parts, new designs, yourself...anything really).

However, 3D printing is not just plastic objects; bakers are printing chocolate, home builders are experimenting with using giant 3D printers to print cement buildings -- the possibilities are endless. The technology works by printing a single layer of plastic, layer by layer, until you have a complete design. It’s very much like laying bricks to build a house.

So, why should YOU care?

This technology is completely redefining several industries -- manufacturing, art, custom design, and more. For example, if you had an amazing idea five years ago, it would have taken tens of thousands of dollars and multiple months (maybe years) to see a real world example of that idea that you could actually hold, touch, and test. Make a mistake or don’t like the design? Start all over from scratch.This was completely unaffordable for the average American. Now for the price a 3D printer you can see, touch, and use an object within hours. If you don’t like the 3D print, make a modification and reprint -- just like your book report in high school. This technology is empowering the average person to create like never before.

Ok, you’re not into manufacturing and you’re not a designer, should you still care?

3D printers are endless hours of fun for the average family. There are thousands, maybe millions, of designs and things already created that you can download and print off the Internet. The average person can start printing as soon as they unbox their new 3D printer. My brother-in-law and I spend hours (seriously...hours) mesmerized with my 3D printer. Watching the first couple of prints was like how watching your first TV show must have been -- it’s like nothing you have seen before to watch something appear out of nothing. My eight-year-old son is already designing 3D objects and learning what works and what doesn’t. I couldn’t have imagined this possibility or the value to his education even three years ago.

Let’s get to the important question, what have I printed on my 3D printer?

First was the X-wing starfighter (had to, obviously); then I printed guitar wall hangers, iphone cases, printable jewelry for my sister, plastic pieces for my car, my kid’s pinewood derby car (his design, legal, and yes it won first place). Again, the possibilities are endless.

In conclusion, should you go buy one?!
My wife was skeptical of the 3D printer purchase -- not all of my technology toys have been worth the money. She actually made me sell my Google glasses to pay for it. And yet, she has been the most surprising advocate of this technology and thinks it's been the best technology investment we have made in the last five years. For me, that’s really saying something. I’m a techno geek, and I’m willing to walk the bleeding edge of technology and deal with all the failure that can come with it. If you need your technology purchases to just be for function only, like a microwave or a refrigerator, you probably need to wait one or two more years before making the jump to a 3D printer. That said, if you’re a brave adventurer willing to test the waters before anybody else, now is the time. Printers range in cost from $400 (build your own) to $2,000 for a best-in-class consumer model. Watch a few videos on YouTube or go down to your electronics superstore and check out a 3D printer firsthand.

See the future, live the future, make the future.

David McCurdy: Colorado’s (tech junkie) Chief Technology Officer. Honey bee keeper, 3D printer enthusiast, dad, football superfan. Find me on Twitter at @OITColoradoCTO.

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