Clay Maynard: 3D printers may revolutionize manufacturing
Few people had even heard about 3D printers until the television series "CSI: Las Vegas" did an episode about a gun made with a 3D printer, and how it was used in a murder. If this sounds like science fiction, keep reading.
A Pandora's box was opened when 3D printer technology was first used to make gun parts. It is spawning a whole new set of arguments about whether people have a First Amendment right to print 3D objects like gun parts, and whether they have a Second Amendment right to keep and use what they print.
3D printers were among the consumer high-tech devices demonstrated at the International CES in Las Vegas this year. Watching a 3D printer make real objects appear from nowhere is almost like seeing teleportation. An object could be scanned in 3D and then reproduced anywhere in the world. See www.youtube.com/watch?v=1vFkng9R5F4.
Initially, applications for 3D printers included making on-the-spot replacement parts so companies wouldn't have to carry large inventories. The printers would also allow product designers to make working prototypes in a matter of hours using computer-aided design (CAD) drawings instead of waiting weeks or even months when ordering off-site. See www.youtube.com/watch?v=y1W5gCMpCVU.
So, how do 3D printers work? They basically work the same way as common inkjet printers, but instead of ink, they use various kinds of extruded materials. For example, inkjet printers squirt ink on paper, creating images of text and graphics, while 3D printers extrude a thin layer of solid material on each pass that is typically as thick as a piece of copy paper (about 100 microns). See www.youtube.com/watch?v=AKTSdW7-H3Q.
Just like inkjet printers, 3D printers are controlled by computer software that precisely directs every pass and extrusion. A 3D object could require hundreds or even thousands of passes depending upon the size of the object, and each pass builds upon the previous passes. The type of extruded material determines the hardness and strength of the object, and the result is a product that is typically as good as those done by injection molding.
In his State of the Union speech, President Barack Obama proclaimed the future of 3D printing when he said, "Last year, we created our first manufacturing innovation institute in Youngstown, Ohio. A once-shuttered warehouse is now a state-of-the-art lab where new workers are mastering the 3D printing that has the potential to revolutionize the way we make almost everything."
The markets for 3D printers are similar to the home and commercial markets for computers. MakerBot is a leader in desktop 3D printers costing under $3,000 for use in homes and offices, while Stratasys is a leader in high-end 3D printers for commercial use sometimes costing over $100,000.
The MakerBot Replicator 2, a single extrusion head, can make simple objects as large as 11 by 6 by 6 inches, while the Replicator 2X has dual extrusion heads and can make objects up to 9 by 6 by 6 inches. The major difference is that the Replicator 2X can make objects with moving parts like the gears shown in the photo. See www.makerbot.com.
Stratasys is a $3 billion high-end 3D printer company producing objects for various markets including aerospace, automotive, military, medical, dental, and consumer goods. Stratasys commercial 3D printers can create complex objects using various metals, plastics and ceramics (glass). See www.strata sys.com.
Unlike when PCs came on the market lacking applications, people are coming up with lots of applications for 3D printers including parts for guns. MakerBot representatives at the International CES said that 3D printers could not presently print a complete working gun, but there are people who want to do just that. See www.forbes.com/search/?q=wiki+weapon.
This year, US Rep. Steve Israel, D-NY, has already called for a ban on high-capacity magazines and weapons made partially with 3D printers. Not only does he want to ban "undetectable" gun parts, but at a recent news conference, he said, "It is just a matter of time before these three-dimensional printers will be able to replicate an entire gun."
He also said, "Background checks and gun regulations will do little good if criminals can print high-capacity magazines at home." See http://fios1news.com/longisland/node/25812.
In conclusion, if printers are outlawed, only outlaws will have printers.
Clay Maynard of Yuba City is a technology consultant and past chairman of the San Francisco Bay Area Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Vehicular Technology. Email him at ConsumerTechTalk@comcast.net.