A rapid post on rapid prototyping

Posted August 14th, 2010 @ 7:29 PM by

This is a really cool technology that a lot of people don’t know is out there and available: 3D printers.

They’re exactly what they sound like: if you have a 3D model in a computer of an object, a 3D printer can create a physical version of the object. It works like an inkjet printer, except instead of one pass over paper, it takes many, many passes over a surface, each time putting down another layer and gradually growing the object a slice at a time.

You can use it for mundane things – if you forget your coffeecup, you can just print another one – or you can use it for more complicated things. Say you have a CT scan of a bone and you’d like to examine it more closely – the 3d printer can create a plastic replica.

They’re typically used for prototypes, and not for final manufacturing. This is both because you may want to use a different material in the final version, and because for producing multiple copies of the same thing using some sort of mold is probably faster.

At present, they’re pretty expensive – you’re not going to have one in your home for a quite a while. However, for some businesses they’re affordable, and because they’re versatile, they can be shared by multiple users, potentially from different companies. More about that in a future post.

One of the reasons I’m writing about them now is that I’m thinking about the development review processes, and it turns out that one of the big uses for 3D printers is turning architectural computer models into physical versions. You may recall that one of the points of contention in the Edgewater was that the developers never presented a physical model – instead, Fred Mohs commissioned one:

(From the most excellent “The Edgewater – The Rest of the Story” site)

This model was created at great expense – over $10,000. The 3D printer could significantly cut that down. (The developer will already have a 3D model, and over time the city will either collect models of the built infrastructure, or can use its LIDAR data to fill in the surrounding area.)

For a quick overview of 3d printing, watch this 4 minute video from CNN

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