There has been a lot of excitement surrounding 3D printing, but it is often hard to separate the truth from the hype. You may have seen the news stories about scientists who were able to print everything from pharmaceutical drugs to working guns and wondered how this new technology will change your everyday life. As with other technologies, advances in 3D printing offer both promise and peril, and it is important for ordinary citizens to understand what 3D printing is and what it means.
The History of 3D Printing
The technology behind 3D printing may seem like something new, but it actually dates back to the 1980s. Back then, however, the technology was prohibitively expensive, costing tens of thousands of dollars for a basic unit.
Worse yet, those first 3D printers were extremely slow and not very reliable. These limitations meant that early 3D printers were mainly toys for rich tech geeks and university students.
There was a great deal of interest in 3D printing from business, especially as the technology began to improve and prices started to come down. Commercial 3D printing had obvious applications for creating product prototypes. Businesses could simply create a 3D model of a new product and print it out instantly; it is easy to see why big business found 3D printing so enticing.
Inventors had great interest in 3D printing technology as well, even if the early printers were too high priced and suffered other limitations. As prices have come down, individual inventors have found 3D printing more affordable, and the technology is playing an increasing role in product development and design innovation.
The Current State of the Art
Even today, industrial-scale 3D printers remain quite expensive, often costing $10,000 or more. At the same time, smaller units for personal use have become quite affordable, often selling for less than $1,000.
That $1,000 price point has put 3D printers within the reach of many ordinary tech enthusiasts. Whether they use them to create and print their own custom action figures or to build prototypes for new products, 3D printing is reaching a point where ordinary users can access the technology.
3D printing enthusiasts do not even have to build their models from scratch. A number of websites provide 3D printable templates anyone can use, making it easier than ever to create custom items and models with the click of a mouse.
While the technology seems futuristic, the workings of a 3D printer will be familiar to anyone with an inkjet or laser printer on their desk. While a traditional printer uses ink to create printed pages, a 3D printer uses thin metal, melted plastic or similar materials to create actual objects. No matter what kind of material the 3D printer uses, it passes through a heated nozzle, just like ink through a regular printer or thread through a sewing machine.
It has been many decades since the first 3D printers hit the lab, and the technology has advanced by leaps and bounds since those early days. Printers that once cost tens of thousands of dollars and took up most of a room now cost $1,000 or less and can sit on a tabletop. 3D printers may not yet be cheap enough to be truly mainstream, but that day is coming. Now is the time to get ready for the 3D printing revolution.