By Greg Mills
Recently 3D printers have begun to come of age. Hook up these desktop devices to a computer and run a 3D software image file to be executed by the printer to create a plastic object that can be amazingly accurate.
HP and other companies are getting into the business with what amounts to an ink jet sort of device that prints layer upon layer of melted plastic to make solid models you can hold in your hand. As an inventor I have, in the past, used what is called stereo lithography to create sold prototypes of my inventions. While the old-fashioned carving and sculpture process works for many prototype items, sometimes there is so much complexity some other system is required.
3D replication of a part is great if you can create a good computer file. This has been especially true for items the size of a loaf of bread or smaller.
The two main systems for printing things 3D from a computer file are: 1) a process involving a tank of clear liquid plastic, sort of like an aquarium, which has two lasers coming from the front and one side, and 2: the newer 3D printer.
In the older stereo lithography system, a turntable rotates the platform precisely in a tank of liquid plastic and the lasers shoot through the fluid to an exact point the computer designates. One laser beam does nothing to the fluid, but passes though; but if the lasers both hit a single point the interference of the two beams creates heat. That heat hardens the fluid. The process takes time, focuses on a small area at at time, but builds up a part in many layers. Nice 3D models emerge a few hours later. This system cost thousands of dollars to purchase and operate. Parts commonly cost hundreds of dollars.
The second system is more like the inkjet concept described above. Color spools of plastic filament replace the ink, so colorful solid parts can be created. The plastic thread or filament threads through the printer to a heated spout that moves in relation to the platform. Precise step motors control the melt head. As with the previous system, layering upon layering competes the part. I think the future of desktop 3D printers is in the inkjet concept.
Apple is certainly aware of developments in 3D printing; I think it is one of the most likely new products in development behind the doors at Apple’s laboratories. As with so many things Apple does, 3D printing technology requires a number of elements working together to create the “wow” factor that drives sales of everything Apple sells. Just as Apple pioneered desktop paper printing, I think Apple 3D printing is a forgone conclusion. When Apple launches a killer 3D printer is really a question of timing.
An Apple 3D printing system will require a set of familiar elements. One is a nice incarnation of hardware, a really good USB 3D desktop printer likely to print parts in various colors. Another is an Apple grade software solution for Mac and iOS devices that takes most of the learning curve out of 3D computer aided drawing.
Easy new part file creation is required for printing new items. A library of stock part files containing such things as chess pieces, sold or offered for free on-line, much like iOS apps, is likely. Supply materials in the form of cartridges or spools of colorful plastic filaments would be an ongoing money maker for Apple.
The tendency of Apple to smooth out and make elegant complicated and hard-to-learn software is legendary. I know Apple’s software engineers can make 3D cad intuitive and easy to learn. Right now, existing 3D CAD software is anything but easy to learn and costs a bundle.
A novel laser camera system integrated into Macs and iPhone and iPads would complete the system. To scan and replicate an existing part would be a helpful element of a complete Apple 3D printing product line. A patent application (US20130027548 ) was recently published by the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office, showing a laser 3D camera system that might allow an accurate 3D scanning system to augment stock part files. Thus, you could scan an object you wanted to replicate, select 3D print and your 3D printer goes to work.
You might be able to find an existing 3D part file you like in a soon-to-be-launched Apple on-line 3D parts store. You would download the file you like, go to File/3D Print and, bingo, the Apple 3D printer springs to life and begins to create the part for you.
With computer voice activation here now, can the Star Trek replicator be far behind?