Think of it as do-it-yourself on steroids. The 3D printer is putting the power of manufacturing in the hands of everyday people, which promises to revolutionize . . . well, everything.
The technology — also known as additive manufacturing — involves creating a solid object by layering thin slices of material including plastic, metal and ceramic.
Used in the industrial sector for decades to create prototypes, 3D printing has only recently been reconceived as an option for small businesses and household tinkerers.
However, before the machine can begin its process, someone has to come up with an idea — and these days it seems imagination is the only limit to what 3D printing can create.
Mike Miltimore, co-owner of Lee’s Music in Kamloops, uses his 3D printer for prototyping new guitar innovations in the shop. His machine is about 45-centimetres cubed and includes a nozzle that excretes the material used to create the object.
“You can also print things like complex machines,” Miltimore told Kamloops Business magazine last spring. “It’s mind-blowing.”
And then there’s Kamloops resident Terence Loring.
With a background in mechanical engineering, Loring founded his company 3 Pillar Design to create three-dimensional architectural models of custom homes and commercial properties.
In the past, such renderings would take weeks to build using tiny wooden pieces at an exorbitant price and would never quite achieve exact miniature replica.
All that time, expense and frustration is over thanks to 3D printing.
“Think of a very sophisticated dollhouse,” said Loring. “It’s perfectly scaled. It’s all designed on your computer so when you print it out it’s exactly what you see as the digital form.”
The cost of the material used to create the renderings is minimal and the time is a matter of hours versus weeks.
And the technology may soon be used to construct actual buildings.
Loring is sending his digital designs out for printing, but he intends to get a machine of his own. They can now be bought for a few thousand dollars.
It’s an exciting prospect for the architectural industry, however, it may be only scratching the surface.
A London-based team of architects and designers is investigating the potential of large-scale 3D printing. It has come up with awe-inspiring ideas on a small scale, like a structure that looks like a gigantic oyster shell made of lace.
And architecture is just the tip of the iceberg.
Last summer, Loring agreed to a friend’s request to help Debbie Fortin, owner of K-9-1-1 Animal Rescue & Services in Sicamous, who was caring for a one-legged duck named Dudley.
“He knew that I’m trying to specialize in doing this 3D printing and design and said, ‘Would you mind doing something like this?’ ” said Loring.
So he set out to design a prosthetic duck leg. Having no background in animal biology, Loring consulted a few students studying the field at Thompson Rivers University.
He then sent the design to an Ontario 3D printing company called Proto3000, which offered to manufacture the leg for free.
Dudley was fitted with his prosthesis in early December and he took to it like . . . well you get the idea.
“Once he got his balance, he really understood that there was a second leg there and he really wanted to start walking right away, he was wanting to do a little marathon,” said Loring.
The leg needs a little tweaking in the knee, which came out slightly weaker than hoped. But there’s no doubt that Dudley will walk again.
Using 3D printing for kind-hearted and benevolent projects is gaining ground, and such stories often go viral online.
There’s the South African woodworker who designed a mechanical hand after losing some fingers. A few months later, a one-handed boy in the U.S. was fitted with the same design, now called the Robohand, for a mere $10 thanks to 3D printing company Makerbot.
The Robohand’s instructions and design can be found on Makerbot’s website, which is dedicated to open-source 3D printed design files.
The world has also heard of humanitarian agencies in Haiti using Makerbot printers to provide crucial medical supplies rather than waiting weeks or longer for shipments to arrive.
But as always, with new technology comes a whole set of new problems to resolve.
The most pressing seems to be the ability for anyone to make a gun, especially since the material can escape metal detection in secured areas like airports.
It has prompted the U.S. to pass the Undetectable Firearms Act and led Britain to deem unlicensed 3D printing of guns punishable with 10 years in jail.
Loring, for one, hopes the benevolence outweighs the sinister use of instant manufacturing. And even with the incredible advancement seen in just a few years, he believes its explosive use has yet to come.
“How quickly they’re understanding how to use this, it’s actually shocking,” said Loring.
“And we’re just a the baby stages right now. We’re sort of at the stage of the Wright brothers with the airplane. What I was taught in engineering is going to be thought of as obsolete when people understand the power of this.”