In the beginning there was a beam of ultraviolet light, concentrated in a pool of liquid plastic. From that emerged the first 3D printed object. It was the fruit of Charles Hull, inventor of stereolithography and future founder of 3D Systems, currently one of the largest companies in the industry. He got a patent for the technique in 1986 and later that same year developed the first commercial 3D printer – the Stereolithography Apparatus. And it was on.
From those humble beginnings, the big, chunky and slow machines of yore evolved to the slick 3D printers we know today. Most printers currently use ABS plastic for “printing,” the same material that Lego is made from; other options include Polylactic Acid (PLA), standard office paper, and compostable plastics.
One of the issues with ABS plastic is the lack of diversity in colour. ABS comes in red, blue, green, yellow or black, and users are confined to that one colour for their printed model. On the other hand, there are some commercial printers that can boast nearly 400,000 different colours, such as 3D Systems ZPrinter 850. These printers are commonly used to make prototypes, but the market is moving to other niches.
Recently, scientists have taken 3D printers and used them for bio-printing, a process that drops individual cells into place the way an inkjet printer drops coloured ink. They have been able to create small-scale tissues for drug discovery and toxicity testing, but in the future hope to print custom-made organs for transplant.
There are industrial printers that work in different metals, which could eventually be used in the aerospace industry. Advances have been made in printing multi-material objects, such as the mostly functional computer keyboard made by Stratasys, another 3D Printing company. In addition, researchers have been working on the processes of food-printing and clothing printing. In 2011, both the world’s first 3D printed bikini and the first 3D Printer to work with chocolate were released.
“Personally, I believe that it’s the next big thing,” Abe Reichental, current CEO of Hull’s company, told Consumer Affairs. “I think it could be as big as the steam engine was in its day, as big as the computer was in its day, as big as the internet was in its day, and I believe that this is the next disruptive technology that’s going to change everything. It’s going to change how we learn, it’s going to change how we create, and it’s going to change how we manufacture.”
Printing in 3D is not declining. According to a synopsis of the Wohlers Report, an annual in-depth study of the advances in additive manufacturing technologies and applications, there is a possibility that 3D printing could grow into a $5.2 billion industry by 2020. In 2010, it was worth approximately $1.3 billion. As these printers become easier to find, the prices are also lowering. Where a commercial 3D printer once cost upwards of $100,000, it can now be found for $15,000. Hobby printers have also emerged, costing on average $1,000, with one of the cheapest ones costing only $200.
Alexander Honeywell, a student in the Interactive Arts and Technology School at Simon Fraser University, is holding off buying his 3D printer for a while yet. However, he thinks that the 3D printing trend will continue. “It’s going to be in everyone’s house, I’m sure of it, though maybe not on the same scale we see today,” he says.
In a world where things move increasingly towards the digital, Honeywell is looking forward to getting his hands on the product of his data. “I like how it’s a physical, almost analog technology, because you’re working with real things, so it’s able to present itself well to the person that might not be so tech-savvy. I think that’s why it’s so cool,” he says. “It’s like taking something that’s digital and making it a visceral experience.”