What’s 3D printing anyway?

Kshama A. Mehra
Apr 19, 2017 · 2 min read

I asked myself this question but was too embarassed to ask others because I thought it was akin to asking “What’s Snapchat?”. Well, I eventually learned through the product development process for my kids consumer product, Appétit. I’ve distilled it down here for informational (dinner party conversational fodder) or practical purposes if you should find yourself in need of prototyping services for your next entrepreneurial adventure.

What is it?

Essentially, it’s a way to make stuff from digital files. The printer prints an x,y plane in the z axis to make a 3-dimensional object. It’s been around a long time (~30 yrs), but it’s been democratized recently because of patent losses in 2009. Note, 3D printing is also referred to as Additive Manufacturing.

Less patent hurdles → more players enter → cheaper printing →
product development is leaner!

Yay!

What this means for you?

If you’re a product designer, engineer, or a maker-extraordinaire, you can design and test quickly with 3D printing. You can print in plastic, metal, and a variety of other materials. I used 3D Hubs and Shapeways as resources to learn about the technology and applications. 3D Hubs is an exchange where you can connect with desktop or commercial printers. Shapeways is a marketplace for unique 3D printed objects and jewelry and can also print your design cost-effectively. Ultimately, I used Santa Monica-based Kapow! 3D and Oakland-based Studio Fathom for my custom prototyping & finishing needs. Check out photos of my prototypes here!

Some cool applications of 3D printing

Building Rockets: Back in October 2016, I had the privilege of visiting SpaceX’s headquarters in Hawthorne, CA thru a Cal Alum. WE SAW SPACEX ROCKETS BEING MANUFACTURED. How cool is that? I am still reeling from that. Well, in addition to engineers, technicians, robots to build these massive, complicated structures they used 3D printing to print smaller, intricate parts that will eventually reach MARS one day.

Conjoined twins separation surgery: Jadon and Anais were born conjoined at the head in 2015. Over the next year, neurosurgeons had the complicated task of preparing for separation. The surgical team did this with (1) 3D scans of the boys’s heads and (2) smaller surgeries to prepare for the ultimate stage of separation. From the 3D scans, they printed 3D models of the conjoined brains to practice and test surgical techniques. All of this paid off with a successful 27-hour separation and recovery for the twins.

What’s next in 3D printing?

3D printing food? 3D printing glass? 3D printing houses? 3D printing cars? The future is here, people.

For more detailed reading:

Sources: 3D Hubs, Shapeways, CNN.

Kshama A. Mehra

Written by

Healthcare expert, product entrepreneur, and parent. She might post some of her Mediter-Indian recipes here.

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