Attend a few 3-D printer expos, and you tend to see some of the same old things on display: plastic skulls, iPhone cases and mini octopuses in neon green. But amid those plastic printouts are a few exhibitors that do capture the imagination of an industry, known both for its over-promises and real possibilities.
Here are several things that caught my attention at this week's Inside 3D Printing conference in Santa Clara, California.
Made in Space
This 20-pound metal box is a "ground unit" that mirrors the 3-D printer that was launched into space last month. Now on the International Space Station, this first-of-its-kind zero-gravity printer will soon test whether additive manufacturing technology works in space. If it does, "it's going to be first time anything has ever been manufactured off earth," said Matthew Napoli, a design engineer who worked on the project at Made in Space, which developed the device under a contract with NASA Marshall Space Flight Center.
If that significance is lost on you, consider how limited you feel with the luggage you're allowed to take on your three-week trekking trip in Nepal. Now consider the distance and duration of space travel, and all the necessities of the crew and mission. Assuming the 3-D printer works, astronauts can print out custom tools that they didn't pack with them to fix something that broke. Napoli said they're also developing a recycling system so if the astronauts are only going to use the tool once, they can reuse the materials and print with it again. That further cuts their dependency on supplies from earth, which would help pave the way for long-term exploration to Mars and elsewhere. That should make Elon Musk happy.
Paper or Plastic? In This Case, Paper
As you might expect, many exhibitors at the 3-D conference were pushing their printing filaments — the materials used to make that skull or octopus — touting theirs as having superior strength, stability and elasticity. Over the past few years, Ireland-based Mcor has drawn attention for being the only manufacturer of 3-D printers that use ordinary copy paper you might buy at Staples as the building material. By relying on paper and a water-based adhesive, Mcor is able to brag about its eco-friendliness and big cost-savings on materials. And then there's the color.
Mcor's $50,000 Iris 3-D printer can produce realistic replicas by first using water-based color on the paper, before it's fed into the main printer. What you get is something like the paper-based banana above. And if paper doesn't sound like a strong material, they had on display a working hammer (printed as one piece out of their machine) that could be used to drive a nail into a wooden board.
Just recently, Mcor came out with a new sealant. Dip the 3-D printed paper-based flip-flop in the sealant, and now it can have flexible properties, as Mcor Marketing Director Julie Reece demonstrated above. She said the sealant can also make a print-out flexible like a wallet or spring.
Also drawing a crowd at the expo was Artec's new 3-D body scanning booth. (I wrote about them last month.) When I first met the folks at the Luxembourg-based company months ago, the booth wasn't available for me to try. So I got the full demo this week, which lasted all of 12 seconds. Basically, you stand still on a circular platform while multiple 3-D scanners whirl around you. (No, that's not me pictured, but an Artec employee.)
What results from the scan is a highly detailed digital file with all of your contours, dimensions and colors. From that, you can order a mini figurine of yourself (and no, this isn't me either).
While finding Artec's scanning booth will be difficult initially since the company just recently began shipping them to customers, there are other companies that provide similar services, such as Twinkind and Twindom. Another option is the 3-D picture. This year, Adobe added features to its Photoshop CC software that makes it easier for users to convert their 2-D photos of little Jimmy at the pool into 3-D models that can be printed. Mcor's Reece said the cost of printing something like this is under $15.
Other related stories by this author:
- First Selfies, Now Shapies? Scanning Booths Capture the Moment in 3-D
- The Future of Making: How Innovation Disrupted Itself in 2013
- What 3-D Printing Could Mean for the World's Factory -- China
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