Saturday, February 23, 2013

3-D printing

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The other day I ran across an article on 3-D printing, and sort of dismissed it at the time as I was busy.  But over time I read more about it.  I guess my first reaction was that it was some sort of printing that visualized something similar to the way 3-D movies or comics do or had some kind of application to industry sort of like drafting an exploded view of an object.  But it turns out, after further investigation, it's more than that.  Quite interestingly more, as far as what the futuristic applications could be.  Granted I've always enjoyed these sort of articles that gets me to thinking that perhaps people may not be doomed to extinction or that there's still some positive hope out there on the horizon.   I think of myself as an optimist with a realist sensibility, but I can get depressed with dark thoughts too when thinking about humanity and what seems like our quest to destroy ourselves with a nuke or just through environmental means.

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When thinking of 3-D printing, bear in mind it is a technology still in its infancy.  But what if, suds were spilling out of the side of your dishwasher, and you needed to replace the little plastic bracket that stops them from doing so.  Rather than going down to the hardware store or trying to buy a part from the manufacturer, you'd just get the specs online and print out the part.  Or you're designing a new laptop and you want to get a feel for the ergonomics, so you print out (actually manufacture) a prototype model of that laptop, to see what it might look and feel like--if  it's not exactly what you want, no worry, you can modify it later.  Or maybe you need a hearing aid fitted exactly to your ear or a better fitting ear piece for your media player, you can make one.

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If all that sounds like sci-fi, that's because for the most part of human history, making things has been a process of subtraction.  Michelangelo said, "Every block of stone has a statue inside it, and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it."  But technology developed since the late 1980s has made it possible to do additive manufacturing--laying down only what we want with little or no waste (or pollution either).  Think of Michelangelo's David sculpture, without creating all the dust.  That is basically what 3-D printing is or a better term might be, 3-D manufacturing is all about. 

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This is a model of a Moebius strip home that some architect designed. 

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Here's a design for the fashion industry. 

In 1986, Charles Hull coined the term "stereolithography" to describe a process during which print heads deposit very thin layers of resin in an exact location, building up a finished product.  Additive manufacturing has made great advances in speed, accuracy, and quality since its early days, and it's now being eagerly adopted by many industries that ignored its growth for decades.  Once a way to make a one-off prototype, 3-D printing is now used for all kinds of high-value, low-volume functional parts--specialty tools, parts for fighter jets, and other objects with complex geometries.  Not only can it manufacture objects out of plastic, but also parts made from waxes, nylons, rubber, metals, and composites.  That makes its offerings attractive to all kinds of industries.

Here's another article on additive manufacturing, titled The Coming Decentralization of Manufacturing.

Now to extrapolate a little bit.  As if this technology didn't already seem a little bit Star Trek science fiction-y, what if they could make something like this additive manufacturing,  hook it up to a sort of microwave oven device.  You bring up a recipe on your computer, somehow add the ingredients that the recipe calls for, and hours later, Bingo, you have your meal for that evening.  Or even, what if it could be integrated with nanotechnology?  Could a Star Trek transporter be that far in the future?  I know, I'm getting a bit out there with my daydreaming, but it's still fun to fantasize.


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