CES 2013 has some incredible new technologies on display, but if I had to place a bet—it is Vegas, after all—on which technology will have the most impact on how lives will change in the next 10 years, I'd put money on 3D printing. It is by no means a safe bet, but the 12-year-old in me, who first saw a replicator on Star Trek and imagined a never-ending army of plastic robots battling in his bedroom, has no choice but to let it ride.
12-year-old imaginings aside, 3D printing technology is very promising and, let’s face it, just plain cool. No fewer than four companies showcased consumer-focused desktop printers, including Afinia, which Make Magazine deemed “Best of 2012” in this category. 3D Systems and Makerbot industries also held prominent spots on the show floor, impressing standers-by with live, multi-colored print demonstrations of various shapes, from simple lattices to Yoda busts.
3D printing technology, as it stands right now, is based on incremental polymer deposition (IPD), which is just a fancy way of saying that you apply a thin layer of melted plastic (polymer) over an area, then wait a bit for it to set, and then apply more on top of that, incrementally. That process is repeated over and over again until the object is completed. The approach is ancient (think “pyramids”), but only recently have companies been able to offer fully robotic solutions with attractive form factors and relatively reasonable price tags. Now, for an initial investment of $1500+, consumers can create plastic objects in a variety of shapes and sizes, limited only by the imagination of the designers (and the resolution of the printers).
Objects made by IPD printers do have noticeable ridges, especially where two layers do not exactly meet to form smooth transitions. This is due to the thickness of the applied layers; the thinner the layer, the smoother the transition. Ideally, the layers are only one molecule thick, but in practice, layer thickness is dictated by the fluid behavior of the melted polymers. Formlabs, a successful Kickstarter project founded by MIT graduates in Cambridge, MA, demonstrated a novel approach involving a process called “stereolithography” (SL), which promises to push the industry forwards in terms of print resolution.
Rather than depositing a layer of melted plastic, the printers at Formlabs utilize a unique liquid polymer, which hardens upon exposure to certain wavelengths of light delivered by lasers. It works like this: a stage, or platform, is lowered into a bath of this liquid polymer. Lasers then trace a predetermined path over the stage, hardening the polymer and adhering it to that stage. Next, the stage is slightly raised and the lasers harden polymer and adhere it to the previous layer. This process is repeated until the object is completed. The reason why this technology can synthesize objects with higher resolution is because the layer thickness is no longer determined by the properties of the material, as with IPD, but rather by the size and intensity of the laser. This allows for much thinner layer deposition, which noticeably reduces the appearance of the typical 3D printing artifacts and results in significantly higher detail in the final product.
Anyone with a few extra thousand lying around and an interest in small plastic pieces of art, rapid prototyping, or diminutive robot armies should consider IPD or SL 3D printers. Many of the models demoed at this year’s CES are already available for purchase, but if you are looking for superior resolution, you must be patient. Formlabs is taking pre-orders already for its Form 1 unit, which will begin shipping in April.