By Joseph Mathai
3D printing sounds like an oxymoron doesn’t it? Like saying a fine mess or agree to disagree. When most of us think of printing, it is in 2D on a surface like paper or a t shirt but 3D printing? What if I told you that you could actually print out a bicycle and am not talking about a pretty picture of a bicycle, but an actual bicycle. A bicycle that you can actually ride to work in this trying times of matatu strikes.
Though it has been around for a couple years in design studios and manufacturing plants it is only until recently that 3D printing has begun to cross over into the mainstream.
Image Courtesy of www.engadget.com
What is 3D printing?
3D printing is the process of building three dimensional objects using materials such as plastic or metal from a digitally rendered model. It is often referred to as an additive process as the objects are built from scratch unlike other processes like sawing where materials are cut. Basically 3D printing uses layers to create objects. Think about how a typical printer works by laying down ink in a certain line depending on the pattern. A 3D printer works similarly by starting with a bottom layer and working its way up.
There are various methods of 3D printing but the most common are fused disposition model, selective laser sintering and multijet printing. Fused disposition model is where the raw materials (plastic or metal wire) are melted down and sprayed by the printer’s nozzle. As the layer hardens this process is repeated until an object is created. Selective laser sintering creates objects from powder which can be plastic or metal. The laser binds the particles together using layers to form an object. Mutijet sprays an adhesive onto layers of powder thus forming an object.
Image Courtesy of www.shapeways.com
History of 3D printing
Despite the fact that 3D printing has only recently started to become mainstream, the first 3D printer was created 28 years ago by Dr Charles Hull who founded 3D Systems, a company which made stereolithography machines used for commercial printing. For several years 3D printers were used to create prototype representations in the fields of automotive industry, medicine and aerospace. Companies would build 3D objects of a product and once approved they would now manufacture it.
But with the advent of cheaper 3D printers such as the Maker Bot Replicator and RepRap, 3D printing is poised to go main stream in a big way. With relatively low costs compared to commercial 3D printers the potential applications for these cheaper printers is magnificent especially in developing nations. For a long time manufacturing products has always been the preserve of larger companies. But imagine with a 3D printer you now become a manufacturer creating your products to suit your own customization needs.
How Some Kenyans are Applying 3D Locally
It is probably on that note that the 3D 4D competition which took place in London on October 19th this year. It brought together innovative projects from around with proposals on how use the exciting technology to bring about positive changes in their communities. The slogan was “Relieving Poverty Encouraging Innovation.”
Among the contestants were Roy Ombatti and Harris Nyali from University of Nairobi’s Fablab. Their project involves using 3D technology to print out shoes to fight the jigger campaign. The shoes would be manufactured from reused plastic and would also be recyclable once they are worn out. Apart from the potential help that this project could bring to people affected by the jigger infestation, it can also provide employment for people.
On a global scale 3D printing is being used for some amazing applications in fields such as medicine and aviation. Bespoke Innovations builds customized prosthetics for amputees. In 2009 a major breakthrough was made in regards to actually using 3D printers to print blood vessels and in 2010 engineers at the University of Southampton designed and flew the world’s first 3D plane.
The Future of 3D Printing
So all in all what does the future hold for 3D printing? It is estimated that in 2016 the industry will reach $3.1 billion and $5.2 billion by 2020. Could we be bidding adieu to mass production and hallo to customized products?
Within the country 3D printing could open up a whole new industry by making manufacturing cheaper and more available to everyone. Consumers on the other hand can manufacture their own products. How many times have you walked into a shop for a piece of a product that broke or was lost and can’t find it? Well now you’ll be able to print out a new one.
On the other hand there some speculations that 3D printing could potentially reduce the need for labour in developing nations seeing as people in developed nations will now also become their own manufacturers. But that’s presupposing that local industries in developing nations do not have their own market and wholly rely on work from developed ones.
Whatever the case without a doubt 3D printing is going bring about amazing innovative products as the imagination will perhaps be the only limit to creation. Personally I would print myself a bicycle or a car to get to work, like I said imagination.