Hello, 3D printing

3D printing has been quite the rage in the past couple of years. And not surprisingly so.

Indeed, very few things can be cooler than feeding a 3D model into a software, interfacing that with the right hardware, and getting a real-life model of it, right there. A number of reputable sources have even claimed that it's going to change the world forever.

We shall see how it changes the world forever, if and when it ever does, but for now, I'm just here to talk about my first experience with a 3D printer. This was at our office at the Berkman Center For Internet and Society at Harvard University (where I'm interning this summer). And it's actually, really cool.

The ink, at least for this printer (and from my understanding, for most 3D printers today) was plastic. The type of plastic that you need, depends on the kind of thing that you are printing. Here's how a cartridge looks like.

The mechanics of 3D printing is extremely interesting. One might just think that you feed in the model, and the software-hardware combo does the rest. But it isn't quite so simple. Since a 3D printer prints in layers, and builds the object from the base, upward, it makes sense to orient the 3d software model such that the output is in the best possible position to absorb shear and not flake (ah, high school physics, how I miss thee). Moreover, when you're printing a portion of the object that is jutting out, you might wonder how the liquid plastic is going to be held up in the air before it solidifies. But, a 3D printer takes your mind off that by automatically printing a support for the section that juts out, using a different plastic ink, that can be scraped off after the printing is done.

More sophisticated 3D printers allow you to feed in two different types of ink - one for the actual material, and one for the support. In fact, there even exists such ink-plastic that can be dissolved in water. So, when used as the support material, one can just wash the support away after the printing is complete.

Pretty cool, eh?