By Richard Romano on December 4th, 2012
I have posted here previously about 3D printing and some of the advantages and environmental issues of the fast-emerging and developing technology. Recently, there has been some more news on the 3D printing front: Staples, the office superstore, has announced plans to offer in-store 3D printing services, which it is calling Staples Easy 3D. Although it is only initially being rolled out in the Netherlands and Belgium, it will gradually expand to other countries. How does it work? Says PC magazine:
The online feature offers everyone from product designers to architects and educators to parents the option to create photo-realistic 3D printed products. Just upload electronic files to the online Staples Office Center and pick up the finished model at a brick-and-mortar store or have it shipped.
Home 3D printers are now available—and, at around $1200, not a completely crazy price point, but it’s likely they will come down—but as you can imagine, one of the limitations of a home printer is that of volume. Not print volume as we usually think of it, but literally the physical volume of an object. In other words, you can only print something that is so big, typically the size of a lunchbox. So, Linjie Luo and some colleagues at Princeton University came up with what, in retrospect, seems like the obvious solution: divide larger objects into smaller, printable units that can then be clipped. Says New Scientist:
The software, called Chopper, works by analysing a 3D model before printing and breaking it down in an optimal way. Object seams are placed as far away as possible from areas of high mechanical stress, also splitting the object into as few sections as possible.
Making these kinds of calculations about 3D objects is difficult, but Chopper was generally able to devise partitions which worked better than those chosen by humans (except for a 3D printed armadillo, for reasons that the Princeton team didn’t understand, but perhaps that’s no great loss).
While I don’t know if there is a thus-far untapped printed armadillo market (there are markets for weirder things), there is one limitation to the whole process: consumer-level printers can’t print the pieces with a high enough quality for them to slot together properly. In terms of 3D printing, in many ways we are still at the “dot matrix” level in the evolution of the technology. However, there is no doubt that the quality will improve substantially.