H-CAL POLY

Feb 1, 2013 9:02 PM by Keli Moore, KSBY News

3D printers: What are the possibilites?

3D printing also known as rapid prototyping has been around for more than 30 years. Typically used for industrial design, the printers have helped the auto industry make cars more sophisticated.

It seems 3D printers are just coming of age for the average consumer.

Historically 3D printers had a price tag in the six figure range, but the technology is rapidly coming down in price. The size has become smaller too. You can now get a 3D printer for under $2,000 -- and it's no larger than your home printer.

Cal Poly just joined the 3D printer hype and bought one for its architecture students.

3D printing is like making something out of nothing. The first step is creating a digital design on software that comes with the printer. Designs are also for sale on numerous websites.

"It allows us to define all the three dimensional perimeters, and then when we send it to the printer. It slices up the plastic and figures out how it will build the layers from the bottom to the top," said Mark Cabrinha, an architecture professor at Cal Poly.

Layer by layer a digital design becomes three-dimensional, and it can happen within minutes.

"It makes design accessible to anyone, and you see this tool being closely linked to the Maker Movement," said Cabrinha.

"Rapid prototyping began as military technology and part of the advances in developing in airplanes and even for the Navy, so they could have a single source for making parts rather than having to ship parts all over the world," said Cabrinha.

At the consumer level there's obviously a size limit to what we can print.

"But the technology is so precise that you can design clips so you can make component parts, and then you can assemble something much larger," said Cabrinha.

This technology comes in handy for Cal Poly's architecture students.

"It saves us time and our designs can continue to improve," said Kristin Juette, an architecture grad student.

"Right now is just the beginning. We are restricted to plastics and small volume sizes, but moving forward, the possibilities really are limitless," said Tucker Marshal, who is also an architecture student.

In the next few years these printers should get down to a few hundred dollars. As for where to buy one, can't get one at Best Buy, at least not right now. But a quick Google search and you will find many for sale from on-line businesses.

Beyond using plastic for 3D printing, some are experimenting with concrete and metal. Fabric is on the 3D printing horizon.

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