Computer Futures

What Is 3D Printing?

In early September, a band played a concert at Lund University in Sweden. Nothing too remarkable in that, maybe. However, this was a band and a concert with a difference. It was the first instance of the use of 3D printed instruments in live music. A drum, keyboard and two guitars were the instruments created in this apparent world first.

What is it, then, that lies behind 3D printing? What software engineering processes are involved? And will we soon be talking about the ubiquity of 3D printers across our lives?

What is 3D printing?

3D printing is often referred to as desktop fabrication, or additive manufacturing. Basically speaking, it is a process in which a real, tangible object is created from an existing 3D design.

In 3D printing, the printer that produces the final object takes instructions from a 3D modelling file create by a modelling programme and broadly known as a CAD – a Computer Aided Design file. The software then works to chop the design into thousands of horizontal layers, with the printer recreating each individual layer to produce a final object.

Exploring what lies behind 3D printing software

A digital design of the object is most prevalently created using the STL file format. This C++ coding language underpins the basics of the software that runs 3D designs; essentially the STL file plays the same role with 3D printing as a PDF file does with 2D ink printing.

Recently a push by software engineers to open up software to the wider world has resulted in the advent of an open platform called Spark. Spark is the brainchild of the 3D design engineer Autodesk, and the hope is to encourage the emergence of unified and accessible software platforms from which most 3D printers can function.

Applying 3D printing technology

There are several areas that have already garnered serious attention for the application of 3D printing. Its use in creating car parts, cases for smartphone devices and most importantly its application across the medical sciences are well documented.

Indeed, it is in the ambit of medical applications that 3D printing could find its first defined market space. Medical implants and the stunning concept of printable body parts are driving interest from the medical and dental spheres. A staggering forecast has estimated that the value of the 3D printing market in medical and dental applications will surge upwards by 365%, reaching values of $867million by 2025.

The innovation across other market places is also starting to come through. At the 2014 Maker Faire to be held in Rome, a global gathering of inventors and innovators saw another aspect of how 3D printing may evolve: home building. Although in its embryonic stages, a 6 metre tall printer known as Delta will be shown off to crowds. The printer is able to produce small units of materials, in clay, that can be used in construction.

Is 3D printing the future?

There are exciting innovations, sure, but as seen by the advent of Spark, there remain challenges from a software perspective as much as a cost perspective in winning market value throughout the world. Designing software that can act across 3D printer platforms is only now an emerging discussion.

Additionally, 3D printing sits in an immature business ecosystem. Many of the breakthrough moments in 3D printing are found within the crowdfunding sphere: sadly not enough of these will be taken forward, matured and grown into viable businesses.

Undoubtedly, however, excitement in the medical communities and in the automotive and aerospace industries is genuine. 3D printing will be a game-changer, it might just take a little longer than everyone thought.