3D printing is making the unfathomable real, and it’s available to everyone.
With 3D printing, the revolution in manufacturing is here. And it’s not just engineers, material scientists, inventors, artists and entrepreneurs using the technology. It’s anyone who wants to create a miniature, replicate something, make a new game piece, solve a problem or just experiment and have fun. 3D printing is making the impossible possible, and it’s making it accessible to everyone.
3D printing pioneer Joshua Harker wanted to make in real space what he could only draw in two dimensions. This drove his experimentation with the additive process. In combining art and engineering, he “wanted to bridge the traditional medium [of sculpture] with new technology” and be able to create objects “that never could be made before.” His Tangle series uses organic forms so complex with tapering forms, knots and bends that they couldn’t be made any other way. What he loves most about 3D printing? “[It] helps people take the power of creation into their own hands.”
Bathsheba Grossman, one of the most respected 3D designers, often bases her 3D designs on mathematical symmetries and data sets. The results are spectacular, as in her Quintron and Borromean Rings: renderings of mathematical objects that mere humans can’t even imagine, much less design. At least one company exists to reverse engineer what she designs.
These are incredibly complex, perfect examples of what 3D printing can do that would be impossible through other processes. Take the Borromean Rings, for example, which Grossman describes on her website as “three rings [which] are locked together inextricably although no two of them are linked.”
Marco Mahler, an artist who makes kinetic sculpture, and Henry Segerman, an assistant professor in the mathematics department at Oklahoma State University, used 3D printing to create incredible mobiles. What makes the resulting object so amazing is not the sheer number of moving parts which, in the case of Quaternary Tree (Level 6) with its 1365 pieces, would be preposterously time consuming, but the ability to increase or decrease the thickness of each individual part and to balance each section to 1/1000 of a millimeter.
Designing for 3D printing is not just a technical skill but an art form, and 3D printing is in some ways a new medium. These examples push the limits, but there are many other artists, designers and makers who are simply having fun and sharing their designs on sites like Thingiverse. There, anyone can buy or download designs for printing on their own 3D printers.
Lots of these designs are geek-chic, like the finite Tower of Pi pencil holder below. The Möbius strip, an object with only one surface and one edge, is in full force with a Mobius Nautilus and a Super Mario Mobius Strip. There are also toys and games like this Marble Run, which you can see in action here, or Escher’s Playground 3D Maze Cube.
iMaterilise and Shapeways are just two of the most popular web-based 3D printing services. At both sites, you can upload your designs or select one from one of the designers, choose the material and finish, and have a product printed and sent to you, or you can choose from one of the designs already uploaded.
Stepping outside of the cool mathematical uses of 3D printing for a moment, one thing that 3D printing excels at is one-off production. While it wouldn’t be impossible to do what People Prints does on your own, it would be significantly more expensive. But thanks to People Prints, you can have yourself or a beloved pet scanned and a replica printed for a starting price of $58. The caveat is that it can’t be done via photographs. The person who wants to be reproduced has to go to their location in Philadelphia to be scanned.
It’s a revolution by the people and for the people, but will just anyone be able to create all these cool things? Well, not exactly. Unwrapping a desktop 3D printer and playing around won’t immediately get you something fabulous, but like anything worth doing, dedicating time and energy will eventually get you something pretty cool.
Using the right tools is key. Tinkercad is a browser-based 3D design and modeling tool that anyone can use. Kids who have played Minecraft will feel at home here with its familiar use of 3D shapes to create. Don’t let its ease and intuitiveness fool you, though. For beginners, Tinkercad is a powerful tool and a great place to learn the basics of 3D design through step-by-step tutorials and videos. And when something is ready to be printed, Tinkercad will create the file to send to a printer of your choice, whether on your desk or through a 3D printing service. For more advanced users, Onshape is another browser-based program that allows free noncommercial use for students and the public.
Like all things tech, the newest and best are replaced by the next newest and best in a shorter and shorter time frame. That’s why it’s best to go to the people who know. All3DP also has a best-of list and in-depth reviews so anyone can find the printer that’s right for them. 3dHubs creates a best-of list every year based on user reviews. With 3D printing, the higher the quality of printer, the less visible the different layers of material.
For those searching for professional help learning how to design and create with additive printing, public-access makerspaces might be your best bet. NextFab in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and in Wilmington, Delaware, or MakerHQ in Sacramento, California, and others across the country have all the necessary equipment, technology and support you need.
Feature image: Diasurak by Nick Ervinck.