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Burb's Eye View: 3D printing represents a wave of the future

February 04, 2014|By Bryan Mahoney
  • A 3D printer applies layers of melted plastic to a platform. They will eventually become nine turtle keychains.
A 3D printer applies layers of melted plastic to a platform.… (Photo by Bryan Mahoney )

How do I know we live in the future? Because on Saturday I watched a couple of school kids enter a virtual world where they built a toy robot and were ready to manufacture it in a few hours.

At the Burbank Marriott last weekend, dozens of companies from the 3D modeling world showed off the latest production technology for the 3D Printer World Expo. It showcased the big and small players in 3D tech — from virtual sculpting programs to cameras that take 3D scans to the many machines that convert plastic into products.

For all the technology that descended on Burbank Saturday, I entered the expo just wanting to know how far off we are from owning 3D printers in our homes. When can I print out a replacement lid for the coffee pot I broke six months ago?

The allure of 3D printing right now is that engineers can realize prototype products in a few hours that are technically precise to within millimeters of their designs. Artists can realize Escher-like geometric patterns that would be literally impossible to construct by carving out of a block of material.

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“It’s democratizing the process of engineering,” said Joe Micallef, design editor of 3D Printer World, an online resource for 3D printer users. “You don’t need to have the skills of an engineer to print something.”

There are two types of 3D printers. The more common method feeds a piece of plastic wire through a robotic arm that melts the plastic and places it on a platform, layer by layer, until your object is created.

Others use a viscous plastic goo (a technical term) that is hardened when shot with a laser similar to one on a DVD player. A robotic arm drags the formed object out as if emerging from a primordial pond.

The promise of at-home 3D printing is huge for regular consumers. Owners of classic cars could download designs for car parts that haven’t been mass-manufactured in 20, 50, or 100 years and produce them right in their garage. Apparel companies can print out shoes that fit the exact shape of your foot. The expo displayed several jewelers who make custom-fitted jewelry and customized pieces.

Want your name embedded on a wrench? Just hit “Print” and the whole tool forms in a few hours.

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