3D Printing: A New Dimension to Queens

The Future of Manufacturing is Making a Home in the Borough

By Patrick Kearns

 

3D engineer compiling a build

Conceptually, 3D printing is somewhat inaccessible to the general public; it’s still an involved industrial process on the manufacturing scale, and on a smaller, do-it-yourself scale, it’s unaffordable. Eventually that will change.
While a 3D-printed future where we’re driving our 3D-printed cars to a 3D-printed restaurant that serves 3D-printed filet mignon on 3D-printed plates seems like a hazy dystopia and wholly unreal, there are much more practical applications.
The process of 3D printing is a lot less of an actual printing process than its name may lead one to believe.
Mansee Muzumdar works for Shapeways, a 3D-printing facility with an office in Long Island City. She said those in the industry know the process instead as “additive manufacturing.” “You’re building something in layers and layers,” she explained.
photo 4 (1)At Shapeways, the products are built with layers of powder that are laser-fused together. There are myriad materials to choose from, including different types of plastics, nylon, silver, gold and sandstone.
“We have over 50 types of materials we can print in,” Muzumdar said. “You can actually buy something in 14-karat gold.”
The process is simple, in terms of manufacturing. A customer sends Shapeways one of their personal designs and chooses the materials they’d like their product to be created with.
To create that design, there are plenty of readily available 3D-printing programs online, such as Blender, Maya and Rhino – even Photoshop now has a 3D-printing component to it.
A design team at Shapeways then checks the object in their computer system to make sure it’s possible to make the design a reality. For example, sometimes a product will have parts that are too small that can break apart during the process.
Depending on the materials desired, Shapeways either sends the completed design out to one of their manufacturing partners or does it in-house. The metals and sandstones are done at facilities around the world, but the flexible plastic – for products like phone cases – is created right inside their warehouse space.
The whole process can take anywhere from eight to 24 hours with printers running 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Technicians create massive blocks of powder, with the shapes embedded right into the blocks, for some of the products. They then take them to a room where they excavate the products like an archeological dig. Workers sift through the powder, pulling out toys, figurines and other small objects.
While looking through an array of 3D-printed items it’s easy to question the usefulness, but even in its  early stages 3D printing is revealing its potential impacts on a much grander scale.
“It’s really just a new way of manufacturing,” Muzumdar said.
The product potential is endless. From children’s toys to life-saving medical supplies, these products can be mass-produced quickly and efficiently in a smaller space. It’s also helpful for a DIY designers. “3D printing is really great for designers that are trying to do something on a smaller scale,” Muzumdar said.
Personal 3D printers are still a luxury. A simple shopping search on Google shows most home printers priced at well over $1,000. As more and more are produced and the power and practicality of the printing is slowly uncovered, it could, like all technology, become affordable for the average consumer.photo 1
But is getting a 3D printer into the average consumer’s hands necessarily a great idea? Progress is, of course, a double-edged sword with stories about the ills and triumphs of 3D printing coming out daily.
In Brazil, thanks to a 3D-printed ultrasound, a blind woman was able to “see” her son for the first time. The viral video tugged heartstrings across the world. But there’s also some danger associated with 3D printing. There’s a significant amount of controversy surrounding home-printed guns and weapons. Likewise, unregulated products can be produced simply and efficiently, making their way onto the black market.
So what is exactly is the future of 3D printing? Is it desktop machines for everyone, like regular printers, or an integral part of manufacturing? It’s likely somewhere in between, but Muzumdar has a bold predication. “Soon, everyone will own a 3D-printed object,” she said.

 

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Posted by on Jun 4 2015. Filed under Featured Articles, Technology. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

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