3D Printing: It's More than Magic

Science Life

Welcome to Science Life: A discussion of the weird and wonderful intersection between science and our day-to-day lives.

3D printed candy.

Perhaps you’re like me, and three-dimensional (3D) printing is something you’ve heard of (and think is pretty damn cool) but know very little about. Recently, a friend gifted me a 3D printed model of the Shine Dome, which prompted me to look a little more into the field. As it turns out, it’s pretty fascinating stuff!

3D printers have been around since the 80s, and were used to make prototypes for industry and medicine – hence why they were originally called Rapid Prototyping technologies. This allowed companies to easily and cost-effectively make models of things before they invested in the real object. This made Rapid Prototyping especially valuable for smaller companies who had fewer resources to begin with. Most models were, and still are, made with plastics (a.k.a. polymers), but metals and even minerals were also used.

As technology improved, people started to use 3D printers to make ‘stuff’ rather than ‘prototypes of stuff’. This opened a door to literally thousands of uses and applications that we hear about in the news today. From food and clothing, to surgery and art, 3D printing possibilities are endless. Just last week I read about a company that 3D printed an entire house for less than $15,000 – now that’s affordable housing!

Some have suggested that this could revolutionise the housing industry by reducing costs, time and waste, but it will probably take a while for it to catch on. You would need a large number of building sized 3D printers to start with, and enough people who know how to print before you could launch such an enterprise.

However, while it may be hard to get your hands on a 3D printer big enough to build your house, printers that will fit inside your house are readily available. The ANU Maker Club has one that members can use to make fun knick-knacks like my miniature Shine Dome. If you ask nicely, or better yet join the club, they may let you use it too.    

Making a 3D model starts with an idea and a computer. Designers create a blueprint of the model they want using one of the many computer programs available. My dome was made using one called OpenSCAD, which has the added benefit of being free. These models are either solid in nature (like a rock) or only represent the outer surface of the object (like the shell of an egg). If you’re not that great at designing it’s okay, there are plenty of open source models out there for you to try out, including the Shine Dome!

Next, it’s time to print! Data from the program is sent to the printer either directly or using a memory stick. The printer then gets to work by printing the very base of the object and working its way up with thousands of tiny layers. The printing itself is done by melting the material you’re using to make the object, and once it touches the surface it’s instantly cooled to make it solid again.

If you’re using (melted) plastic, it is probably a good idea to keep the area well ventilated to prevent a buildup of fumes. Recycled and biodegradable plastics are available for those who are environmentally conscious and don’t want to create extra waste.  

Small objects can be printed in just a few minutes, larger ones may take a few hours and a bigger printer, but really, the sky’s the limit for the things you can create. Why stop at the Shine Dome when you can make awesome stuff like a shiny Firefly or Pokémon to add to your collection?