The dominant story of this year's technology headlines has, undoubtedly, been the rise of 3D printing to the public conscience. From the speeches of Barack Obama to the rantings of the web's least popular tech blogs, everybody has been talking about it. Yet, for many, many people, the question of what exactly it is and how it actually works remains unanswered.
3D printing, also known as additive manufacturing, is a process of creating objects, in which layers of material are placed on top of one another until the item is complete. This differs from the traditional subtractive modes of manufacturing, in which a large piece of material is whittled down into the desired shape.
To achieve this, 3D printers extrude filament through a nozzle above a heated building platform below. The movement of the nozzle and pace at which the filament is extruded is controlled by a Computer Aided Design file of the intended object.
So, if you want to print a cup, for example, you would first create design for your cup on a CAD programme then save it as an STL file and send it to your 3D printer. The printer would then manufacture it in a series of passes over the platform, one layer at a time.
The possibilities of this process are endless. So far, everything from machine components to furniture to clothes to guns to medical items have come out of 3D printers. The upside of the process is customisability – you can literally make everything to your specifications. Also there is speed and, in some cases, cost. For example, prosthetic eyes for patients traditionally take weeks to create and come at a cost of around 3000 pounds. With 3D printing they can be made in about an hour for around 150 pounds.
On the other hand, however, there are some downsides. Firstly, it is not exactly sustainable. None of the main filaments being used in consumer 3D printing are particularly environmentally friendly. Secondly, it is far from perfected. While the day may come where everybody in the country is printing off their own products at home on a 3D printer, that will not happen until the process becomes faster and more user friendly.
So, while 3D printing may be the future, it is not quite the present just yet.