"If you can draw it, you can make it." In the realm of 3D printing, those are the words hobbyists and advocates share with prospectives poking around this young technology.
Easier said than done, but with a little practice, you really can fabricate almost anything on a 3D printer. Accessories, miniature figures, components for a project, smartphone accessories, tools -- these everyday objects can be materialized with 3D printing.
It's about as close to the Star Trek replicator as we'll ever get (at least in my generation).
In the latest episode of Always On, I ventured into the world of 3D printing to attempt to print my own, custom iPhone case. I went into this mission as a complete noob, without the slightest idea of how the printing process works.
Here's how CNET's Rich Brown describes the process in his "brief, brief overview of 3D printing":
- Acquire a 3D model file via download, by designing a model yourself, or by scanning a physical object.
- Send that file to the 3D printer, generally via your Windows, Mac, or Linux-based computer.
- The printer then draws from a spool of 1.75-millimeter or 3mm plastic filament, printing your design by building up layers of heated, extruded plastic.
- Bask in the glow of having brought into existence an actual 3D object.
With this in mind, I went to the TechShop in San Francisco and tackled my first-ever 3D printing project. Here's what happened:
Always On DIY: 3D print your own iPhone case
Realistically, if you want to 3D print something, your process will be different. Unless you're doing some serious prototyping, or are an overachieving parent dedicated to only providing your child with 3D-printed toys, you will probably never own a 3D printer.
For one, they're expensive, starting at about $1,500 for a reliable model. But more importantly, owners are faced with routine maintenance, and must be comfortable with their 3D printer's mechanics and programming language.
Such circumstances are probably what have pegged 3D printing as a niche hobby that only serious geeks and prototyping entrepreneurs can tackle. However, at places like TechShop in San Francisco, people can use communal 3D printers with the help of an expert.
If you want to get into 3D printing, the increasingly popular option is to outsource the printing to a company like Shapeways. Once you design your print in a program like AutoDesk 123D, or find a premade one on site like Thingiverse, you simply upload your design to Shapeways and they'll take care of the printing.