A few weeks ago, I bought a 3d printer for use in my home. On the day I installed it, I recorded a video for our team’s Signpost’s YouTube channel (it’s available here or at the bottom of this post). Since then, many people have asked me a lot of questions about it, so here is a composite reply that I hope will inspire you to consider joining the “maker” revolution.
What is a ‘3d printer’?
Update on 22 November 2013: Here’s a great summary of 3d printing.
Technically, it’s a rapid prototype machine which allows you to build small physical objects. The home based ‘printers’ all use plastic as their build material, and are better described as ‘extruders’ rather than printers. They heat up plastic enough to melt it, and then squeeze it through a very small hole to create a thin ribbon of hot plastic which is then moulded into any shape you want. Objects are built up layer by layer.
There are other versions of 3d printers that can use different materials. You can print in metal (this uses powder and a laser head to fire the powder and turn into molten metal) or even in stem cell material (doctors are using 3d printing technology to print out replacement bones and even soft tissue, like skin grafts and ears). One company is experimenting with using 3d printing technology to create food (see ModernMeadow.com). Conceptually, we could print out anything in a printer, as long as we had the right chemicals to input and the right conditions to combine them in. As such, 3d printers are not just mini factories in your homes, they could also be mini science labs too.
But for now, home use 3d printers use plastic only. For more, read the Wikipedia entry.
Updated on 20 August 2013: The Economist recently published an article outlining a number of other 3d printing processes, some of which are available for home use and one new one which is remarkably cheap. Read it here.