It wasn’t that long ago that the only way a manufacturer could build one single product, either as a prototype or an operational unit, was through expensive engineering and casting or molding processes. Soon, however, building a prototype could be as inexpensive and simple as pushing the “print” button on your computer.
Thanks to funding made possible by Kickstarter, a Web-based funding platform for creative projects, two University of Maryland graduates have raised more than $3 million to produce The Micro, a consumer-friendly, sub-$300 3D printer. For anyone who has been hiding in a cave for the last decade and is not familiar with the process, 3D printing, also called additive manufacturing, is a process of making a three-dimensional solid object of virtually any shape from a computer-generated digital model.
Until recently, 3D printers were bulky and exorbitantly expensive, but, as we have seen with so much technology since the advent of the computer chip, the 3D printing process is maturing. "A 3D printer is a magical box that creates things," said Michael, co-founder of M3D, the company he launched with David Jones. "It's that simple. There is nothing on your desk one second, and the next you have it."
Weighing just two pounds, medium watermelon-sized and box-shaped, The Micro can be used to create anything from custom jewelry, cookie cutters, everyday objects around the house, and even real engineering and artistic prototypes, according to the company. Much like a paper printer, The Micro attaches to a computer, through which users download or create models using M3D's software, which company officials say is as interactive and enjoyable as playing a game. Once a model is selected, users hit print and the object is made. It promises to help change the way people build, innovate and create."
For valve and actuator manufacturers and their suppliers, the possibilities seem endless. While prototypes of seals, gaskets, valves and actuators are certainly possible, would it eventually make sense to use 3D printing to construct one-off specialty valves?
And what about plants and processes? In this image we see 3D printed models of buildings. Could a whole power plant be designed this way? Certainly models of factories and the machines in them could be created, allowing designers to move the equipment about like furniture in a doll house. Would this permit more creative uses of space and floor plans?
It’s a brave new world, this offered by 3D printing. I’d love to hear from any of our readers about how they’re using this incredible technology.