What is 3D printing?

3D printing is a hype at the moment. It’s almost described as some sort of magical thing. Well, the essence of 3D printing is not magic but it’s software that takes a 3D object and slices it into a stack of 2D layers, and a machine that builds this object by printing one layer (mostly plastic) on top of another.
With this technique it’s not only possible to make a physical version of a digital design but it also makes it possible to make something that no other technique is able to.

A bit of history

3D printing is not a new thing, the first patent is from 1986. But since 2005 some people have tried to make it more accessible for a greater public by introducing RepRap. The word RepRap is short for Replicating Rapid-prototyper. RepRap is basically the desire to be able to make a printer that is build using mostly parts that it can build itself, so a self-replicating printer. They come very close but it’s not entirely possible… yet. You still need things like flexible belts, motors, electronics, nuts & bolts, etc. But what it did achieve was that it was no longer a thing for the very happy few but regular people with regular financial means could build and own a 3D printer. Over the following years this slowly developed and more printers were build and perfected.

The Original RepRap and one of it's copies

The Original RepRap and one of it’s copies

At the same time, larger companies started to take interest in this upcoming technique. Soon there came commercial printers for the masses like Makerbot’s CupCake. Since then more and more people hear something about 3D printing or come into contact with someone who has one or has a 3D printed object. It becoming more and more evident that this technique is THE next thing. Experts predict that in the not so distant future every household owns a 3D printer. Instead of buying a coffee mug you buy a design and print it yourself.

The fact that you are reading this means that this is happening right now. You’ve heard of it, now you want to know more about it and soon you’ll be part of it…. we hope!

Is a 3D printer something for me?

Isn’t this the million dollar question? Well, we don’t know. It might be hard to think of a reason why you should need one right now. Truth is that at this point there is no direct need but more a want. Moreover, you shouldn’t expect a 3D-printed plastic iPhone case, for example, to have the same quality or polish as a store-bought case. Today’s 3D printers still create objects with very tiny steps or ridges on the sides rather than a smooth curve or finish you would expect from a factory-made product. But what is it good for then?
Well first of all, it allows you to create something you designed or you can customize something someone else made. Point is, you can make anything you want. You just need to know what to want.

One of the most popular RepRap machines.

One of the most popular early generation RepRap machines.

Once you own a 3D printer you’re view of the world around you will change. The question: “Wouldn’t it be great if I had some kind of …….. to solve this problem?” Well now you can! Just print what you need. A special hook to fit exactly in that small space over there? Or a cup/case/tool/something with your name printed on it or a very personal gift to a friend?
Why stop there? Some people are printing exoskeletons for their handicapped child so they can move better. How about a father who printed a mechanical hand for his son who was born without? How about that little plastic pin that broke? Instead of buying a new product, print a replacement pin! Point is, the possibilities are endless.

But I can’t make a 3D drawing!

Yes, that is indeed a must if you want to turn your thought into physical objects. But with programs like Sketchup it can be really easy to learn. There are very good tutorials for this on youtube which will get you started in minutes. There are also a lot of people who offer their skills to help you create your 3D object.
And besides that there are several huge communities like Thingiverse  and Youmagine where people will upload their designs which you can download and print for free. Take a look and see what can be made.

Still skeptical? I can imagine. As I said, there is not a real must-have reason at this time. But if you’re willing to learn, enjoy making stuff and to have the vision to see the possibilities than you should really think about getting involved in this exciting technology. Join us in the 3D revolution!