The Real Deal on 3D Printers

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Everyone has—at one point or another—seen the replicator on Star Trek and gone, “Man, I wish those things existed.” At just a word, the crew on the Enterprise could get anything they wanted. Black coffee. Books to read. Even working musical instruments. Well, we’re getting closer than ever to making that a reality with the popularization of 3D printers. While we’re still far away from making drinkable coffee or the like, we’re getting closer and closer to Star Trek everyday as at-home pioneers are creating anything from plastic accessories to, more alarmingly, firearms.
 
 

How Does 3D Printing Work?
3D printing, also known as additive manufacturing, is a process where a computer takes blueprints for an item, generates layer-by-layer patterns for the creation of that blueprint, then outputs those patterns to a printer. The printer takes cartridges full of material (usually some kind of plastic or polymer) and stacks those layers one by one until the item from the blueprint is fully formed.

Put simply, the computer takes an item, cuts it into slices—like cheese—then tells the printer to make the item, layer by layer. The technology for 3D printing has actually existed since the 1980s. However, it’s only lately that the entire process has gotten cheap enough that everyday people can afford to do it at home.

What Can 3D Printing Make
3D printers can make almost anything that a blueprint exists for, even items with moving parts. Tests to print a chain link worked, creating a chain link out of separate linked pieces. Even complicated moving parts are not beyond some 3D printers—though you need to assemble them yourself.

3D printers have traditionally been used by product designers so they could design something on the computer, then have a prototype quickly printed out while they get their coffee. No waiting for a manufacturer.

 

What 3D Printers Can’t Do
Printed products are typically not the most high quality. Blueprints to 3D print a gun were tested by Australian police, and found that the polymers used by 3D printers were not safe, causing the gun to explode.

What’s more, most home 3D printers will only output plastic models. So, as advanced as whatever you print looks—it’s just plastic and ink.

How Can I Get A 3D Printer?
How do you get anything these days? You can buy it online. Companies like Cubify, MakerBot and FlashForge all sell 3D printers, as well as “ink” cartridges, online. However, they’re not exactly cheap. A Cubify desktop 3D printer costs about $1,300, while a larger CubeX model is $2,500.

And those are just the ones sold to guys taking it up as a hobby. If you want to make some seriously complex designs, expect to spend thousands on really advanced printers, and even more on materials.

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