3D Printers: Imagining the possibilities!

If I were to re-write a digital version of a much loved fairy tale, that of Cinderella would be very fascinating. The godmother who waved her wand and turned a pumpkin into a chariot and mice into horses for her beautiful daughter, also magically created a pair of glass shoes that weren’t quite the right fit. Had she owned a 3-D printer, she could have designed the shoes of perfect size and all the confusion could have been avoided. It would also have made the chariots and the horses more permanent. It compels me to ruminate over how much simpler Cinderella’s life would have become!

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3-D printers are a very recent technology which might not have made a place in the common man’s heart, but has already caught the fancy of many engineers and small scale manufacturers. 3-D printing technology has been around since the 1980s, although it was not until the early 2010s that the printers became widely available commercially. The first working 3-D printer was created in 1984 by Chuck Hull of 3-D Systems Corp. The 3-D printer uses a technology called stereo lithography. To simplify it for you, it is an additive process, where successive layers of material are laid down in different shapes. This allows the user a great amount of flexibility to create geometrically complex objects that cannot be made in any other way.

The prices of 3-D printers have also come down recently with machines that used to cost $20,000 costing less than $1,000. It has also been customized in numerous ways by an open source called Fab@Home project which has developed printers for general use with anything that can be squirted through a nozzle, from chocolate to silicone sealant and chemical reactants. 3-D printers are being referred to as the “Third Industrial Revolution” as it holds the potential to transform the methods of designing and desktop manufacture.

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It finds a wide array of applications, including the automotive industry, medicine industry as well as the fashion industry. 3-D printers can be used to create 3-D printed bikinis, shoes, and dresses. In commercial production Nike is using 3-D printing to prototype the 2012 Vapor Laser Talon football shoe for players of American football, and New Balance is 3-D manufacturing custom-fit shoes for athletes. In the automotive industry, it uses a wide variety of materials, from metals to plastics to produce parts which are lighter, more complex and stronger.

3-D printers have proven most effective in medicine, with organ development using live tissues becoming a practical possibility. It is also used to design durable custom exoskeletons with tiny, lightweight parts, to develop patient-specific prosthetic jaw transplants as well as for relatively complex facial transplants. Domestic 3-D printing has mostly caught the attention of hobbyists and DIY enthusiasts. Though it is not popular for practical household purposes, it is used to make ornaments, and gears for personal woodwork.

Cheers to the undiscovered life possibilities of Cinderella!