You’ve probably heard of 3D printing, but you’ve probably never heard of Chuck Hall. Hall is the inventor of 3D printing. He’s even known as the father of 3D printing. Hall patented the process of stereolithography—otherwise known as 3D printing—in 1986. The technology allows you to produce prototypes and parts one layer at a time using resin that hardens when exposed to UV light. My first real exposure to this from a practical sense occurred last year when a friend designed and then created a part using his 3D printer to replace a broken door latch on the family’s clothes dryer. Although the reproduced part wouldn’t hold up for long, it would serve its purpose until the manufacturer’s replacement part arrived later that week. When you have four children, a properly functioning dryer comes in handy.
Years ago a 3D printer would have cost you tens of thousands of dollars. A couple of years ago, the 3D printer Tom used to create the part for his dryer set him back a relatively small amount of money: $2,500. Today, a quick search on amazon.com reveals 3D printers for considerably less than that. These printers use resin, rubber, plastic, plant-based plastic, powdered metal, etc. to print in 3D. It won’t be long when most households will include a 3D printer that will be used to make replacement parts for everyday items or create items that today are purchased from department stores, sporting goods stores, hardware stores, or even hospitals.
What are people using 3D printers for today? Women are going to love this one: printing your own makeup at home. Inventor Grace Choi, founder of New York-based Mink, has created a desktop 3D printer that prints makeup she calls the Mink. This Mink can take any image and transform it into a cosmetic, and you choose the color—any color in the world! So, what kind of makeup can you create? Eye shadow, blush, and lip gloss. The possibilities are endless. (I will not be sharing this info with my wife and two daughters.) The Mink can take any image and instantly turn it into a wearable color cosmetic. Although still in development, Choi, a Harvard School Business graduate, says that when her 3D makeup printers become available they will retail for about $300 and then decrease in price once popularity increases. Choi says that her makeup printer will be about the size of a Mac mini. With what little I know about makeup but with what I know about how much the women in my life spend on makeup, the price should decrease very quickly.
3D printers are also being used to create the perfect cast to speed up the healing of broken bones. According to Deniz Karahasin, founder of Osteoid, the company that’s created a concept design for the custom cast, these casts could reduce the time required for a broken bone to heal by up to 38 percent and increase the healing rate by up to 80 percent in fractures. If you think this is more than a cast, you’re right. The cast uses low intensity pulsed ultrasound to stimulate bone healing. By using a 3D body scanner, the area with the broken bone is scanned and then the data is transferred to the software that creates the cast. The web-like design can make anyone look like a superhero. And no more itchy, stinky, and heavy casts made from plaster. (I still remember when my daughter broke her arm and two months later the doctor cut away the cast. What a smell! And what was that pen and part of a coat hanger doing in there?) Kids are going to love this. No more whining about broken bones. Hopefully, no one will be breaking bones on purpose for the bragging rights of wearing one of these cool-looking casts.
Other items that have been made with a 3D printer include a kayak, which an engineer made using 58 pounds of resin; shoes and shoe inserts for a custom-fitted feel; and even parts for semiautomatic weapons. Yes, you read that right: the 3D printer has been used to print lower receivers for the AR-15. (If you’re not familiar with the AR-15, it is a highly modular, semiautomatic rifle that’s similar to the M16 used by the U.S. military. The lower receiver is the part into which the barrel, stock, and other parts are added to complete the weapon.) As controversial as making gun parts might be for some people, there is no controversy surrounding the surgeons who used a 3D-printed model of a heart to study the problems with a 14-month old baby’s defective heart. The surgeons used the printer to create a larger-than-life model prior to surgery, which made it much easier for them to “see” the actual defects and then figure out how to solve the problem before opening up the tiny patient. Some items printed with the 3D printer are not just models. For example, a father used a 3D printer to print a prosthetic hand for his son using $10 in material.
If you aren’t quite ready to purchase a 3D printer, you can still enjoy the benefits of one. Shapeways will print models you send them, or you can choose from thousands of 3D print shapes designed by professional designers.
What does the 3D printer mean to the masses? That someday in the not-too-distant future, the printer is going to be churning out a lot more than just words and images on paper. Things like saving life, perhaps protecting and taking life, making life prettier, and making it more enjoyable and comfortable. The possibilities are as endless as words on a page.