In the ever-expanding universe of 3D printing, no one knows it all. Though the technology has been around since the 1980s, it’s only recently that the white-hot modeling practice has added more accessibility to the mix, offered more materials and software options to everyone from small business prototypers to basement tinkerers.
In the last three decades, we’ve learned a lot about 3D printing. If you’re using it to move your small business forward or are just excited about this technology, here are seven surprising things to know about 3D printing:
1. You don’t need to know how to use 3D modeling software to print an object.
Probably the biggest hurdle keeping people from trying their hand at 3D printing is apprehension about learning an entirely new kind of software. And yet, 3D printing software really is not that difficult. Computer-aided design (or CAD) programs enable people to render and edit 3-dimensional objects on a computer — but the programs aren’t required to print. Using websites like MakerBot® Thingiverse, users can view, share or download more than 500,000 digital files for printing on a 3D printer, whether it’s yours or someone else’s. “Thingiverse is a really great place to get inspired about what’s possible and what’s out there,” says Erin Arden, a training manager at MakerBot. MakerBot also offers free apps, like their MakerBot PrintShop app, where you don’t have to be a designer to create fun and amazing objects like jewelry, vases and signs. (For the record, you don’t need an actual printer either; businesses like Staples offer in-store 3D printing services.)
2. Some 3D printed objects are a lot like Lego.
There are several different methods of 3D printing, and one of them — fused deposition modeling (or FDM) — is similar to a glue gun with hot material extruding through a print head. FDM works with two kinds of materials: ABS (which stands for acrylonitrile butadiene styrene) , which is a petroleum-based plastic, and PLA (polylactic acid). ABS is very strong, and is the same material Lego blocks are made from — ABS’s hardness is also why it hurts so much when you step on a Lego brick. PLA is a non-toxic bioplastic that is derived from field corn, which is why 3D printing with PLA often smells sweet when 3D printing with it.
3. 3D printing smells…like waffles!
Chris Milnes, a product designer from Teaneck, NJ, has been working with 3D printing for a while. His first big product hit, Square Helper, helped stabilize the card swiper for thousands of Square dongle users. He also racks up sales on his Etsy shop, selling cool pop culture–inspired Buddha figurines.
But before Milnes got started, he was worried about the smell and fumes from all that melting plastic. “I was worried about and wonder if my children should be around it,” he says. Years later, he can report that 3D printers are safer to use than a hair dryer. And actually, studies have shown that emissions from 3D printing with PLA are equivalent to cooking on an electric stove. “If anything, it smells like waffles because the filament is derived from corn,” he says. “The family knows I’m 3D printing something when they smell waffles coming out of my office.”
4. You can print in every color under the sun, even Pantones.
Images and videos of 3D printers in progress typically show their output objects in bright reds or blues, but that’s just because it looks slick in marketing materials. In reality, 3D printing filaments come in a wide variety of colors, including some that even match Pantone chips. “I haven’t been stumped yet when I’ve had a client come to me and say, ‘I need this shade of blue, or this shade of pink,'” says Milnes. “I probably have 40 to 50 different colors in my home office to choose from right now.”
5. 3D printing lets you “fax” objects back and forth.
“Imagine working with somebody that you may have never met before, but being able to still work on things as if you’re sitting side-by-side because you’re sharing the same file,” says Arden. 3D printing makes that easier. For example, in 2012, two relative strangers in Washington State and South Africa worked together online, sharing 3D printing files for their MakerBot® Replicator® Desktop 3D Printers to create the Robohand, a mechanical prosthetic hand, that has restored hand and finger function to tens of thousands of people, many of them children.
The Robohand was originally designed for one of the creators, who had lost fingers in a woodworking accident. However, he quickly realized the possibilities for helping children with the mechanical hand. “They targeted children specifically because they don’t normally get prosthetics because they’re so costly,” Arden explains. And the 3D printed parts let the kids change their hands into cool prosthetics made to look like Iron Man and other science fiction characters.
6. Soon, you’ll be able to print in wood, metal and stone.
In early 2015, MakerBot announced some new and exciting printing materials, including maple, iron, bronze and limestone. Featuring actual components of these various materials combined with MakerBot PLA Filament, these composite filaments can let you print a realistic looking hammer, for example. The MakerBot PLA Composite Filaments will have the same material properties as the actual material; for instance, you can sand and stain the wood; use a metal brush on the bronze to bring out its natural patina. “The iron is actually magnetizable, so you can really imagine where the possibilities can go from there,” says Arden.
7. Once you start 3D printing, you may never sleep again.
As Milnes’s Batman-headed Buddha figurine demonstrates, after you start 3D printing, there is no limit to your creativity. “It starts your mind going and going on all the things you can make and fix,” he says. Whether it’s printing more Square Helpers on demand for his small business customers, fixing the family’s broken snow shovel handle or cranking out toys for his children, Milnes’s printer is almost always on the move. “Once you have the capability to create almost anything, it takes over everything,” he says.
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