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FAQ: Understanding 3-D printing technology

In this FAQ, you'll find an introduction to 3-D printing technology, its potential uses and what it means for manufacturing.

What is 3-D printing?

3-D printing technology, also known as additive manufacturing, allows a solid, three-dimensional object to be created from a digital computer-aided design (CAD) model. The "printing" itself is achieved by stacking and fusing together extremely thin layers of material -- typically, plastics or metals.

Once a CAD file is uploaded to a 3-D printer, the machine begins to build the desired object from the bottom up, layer by layer, until it's complete. Depending on the size and complexity of the object, the printing process can take several hours or, with very large items, even days.

What can people make with 3-D printers?

The technology is still rather new and constantly evolving, so the sky is really the limit when it comes to 3-D printing capabilities. Or, more accurately, materials are the limit. As long as an object can be made out of the varieties of plastic and metal beads or fibers that go into a 3-D printer, that object can feasibly be printed out.

Go to any 3-D printing expo and you'll see a wide range of printed items on display: colorful statues, intricate jewelry, designer shoes and, more controversially, weapon parts. These are just a few examples of 3-D printing's uses on the consumer side. NASA is even getting into the game by exploring the potential for food that astronauts could print right from the comfort of their own space shuttles.

Perhaps one of the most groundbreaking advances in 3-D printing is in medicine. Prosthetics providers have begun creating custom 3-D printed body parts for amputees, including legs, arms, ears and noses. In some cases, living tissue can be successfully introduced into these 3-D printed prosthetics.

Are manufacturers really using this technology?

Absolutely. Manufacturers in industries such as automotive, aerospace and defense are starting to use 3-D printing to construct complicated machine parts at a relatively low cost in materials and manpower. GE is one major manufacturer that is taking 3-D printing seriously. Using industrial grade metals, the company is introducing 3-D printed parts into its aircraft engines. Other manufacturers taking the plunge into 3-D printing include General Motors and Timberland.

3-D printing can also make product testing easier for manufacturers. Rapid prototyping -- the quick production of full-scale models -- is made possible largely through 3-D printing and its earlier predecessors, such as stereolithography. Manufacturers have used such prototypes since the 1980s to test the efficiency of a part or product design before mass production.

How about home consumers? Is 3-D printing too expensive for most private buyers?

Industry experts agree that we are still five to 10 years away from 3-D printers being as common in American households as 1-D printers. However, vendors are becoming more aggressive in targeting consumers and lowering price tags accordingly. MakerBotIndustries, one of the big players in the 3-D printing market, recently introduced a home printer for $1,375 -- still pricey, but much more in the realm of affordability for the average consumer than similar printers that were priced in the tens of thousands of dollars just a few years ago.

Right now, the people with 3-D printers in their homes are mostly hobbyists who enjoy designing and sharing their own models with fellow enthusiasts on websites such as Thingiverse. But as the price of 3-D printers continues to fall, that is bound to change. Experts predict that in the near future, consumers will be able to buy a product file off a mainstream e-commerce site -- Amazon, for example -- and print the product at home. How this practice will affect manufacturers remains to be seen.

3-D printers are also popping up in educational settings, with some colleges and even technical high schools buying printers for their design students to practice on. As this becomes more common in schools, more people will be exposed to 3-D printing at a younger age and grow up understanding and embracing the technology.

Are there security risks associated with sharing 3-D model files online?

As with any cutting-edge technology, there are still a lot of bugs to work out in 3-D printing. One of the most common security risks related to 3-D printing is intellectual property theft. When the designs for a patented product are available for download by the masses, there isn't much stopping the production and sale of unlicensed merchandise or blatant knockoffs. Fortunately for manufacturers, the complexity of items that can be 3-D printed is still limited enough to make this a rare occurrence.

Then there's the liability issue. If a customer prints out a part to a potentially dangerous item -- a handgun or a car, for example -- and the part somehow malfunctions, who is liable? The designer of the CAD file? The maker of the 3-D printer? Or the customer? It's too early in the evolution of 3-D printing to answer that question easily now, but cases like this will undoubtedly make their way to courts in the coming years.

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Additive Manufacturing (3D Printing) offers a means to eliminate the massive infrastructure necessary to traditional mass-manufactured goods that are produced in areas of the world where labor is cheap, shipped in massive cargo vessels, stored in bulk quantities and finally transported to a local storefront so consumers can purchase "this year's model" which rapidly becomes too costly to maintain, sponsoring a new purchase of the newer year's model. This stands to disrupt many different industries needed in traditional manufacturing as well as the economies of countries that depend on this trade for their GDP, but repair instead of replacement allows consumers to keep their favorite car, bike, even 3D printed homes which could just be printed in place at their new location as needed. Even local materials can be used for many items, further reducting the cost-to-completion of a wide variety of objects. Traditional manufacturing agencies are struggling to "put the genie back into the bottle" with Additive Manufacturing, but are doomed to failure because existing IP laws allow individuals to manufacture items for personal use and scare tactics addressing quality are rapidly being overturned by manufacturers taking advantage of the elimination of tooling and purpose-specific production lines (GM, etc). Fortunately, as in earlier Industrial Revolutions (automation in the 1700's, engine-powered systems in the 1800's and assembly-line production in the early 1900's), those who adapt their business models to take advantage of the new technologies can bring fantastic wealth to their investors, while the buggy-whip makers who refused to change to upholstery as automobiles replaced horses have their current equivalents. These industries seek to frighten and ring suit in the face of disruption to their "old stand by" ways. With bioprinting offering the potential to fabricate tissues and replacemetn organs directly from a person's own cells, and open-source designs like the RepRap 3D printers ($300-500 USD) you can build for yourself at home, this is a technology that is coming so fast its detractors are struggling to put the cork back into that bottle when the genie is already available at office supply stores around the world. I and my co-author, Richard Horne, recently wrote "3D Printing for Dummies" to discuss 3D printing and its ongoing transformation of the world, along with a detailed discussion of building your own 3D printer.