A duck born with a mangled leg in Arlington, Tenn., now has a prosthetic leg that was “printed” on a 3-D printer. Scientists at Princeton University are researching the feasibility of using 3-D printers to create human ears out of organic materials. And some have even designed printable guns and ammunition magazines.
3-D printing is the latest technology trend that is entering the mainstream as prices drop low enough ($2,000 or less) that even individuals can afford such a contraption. And as of this year, people can buy 3-D printers in Oklahoma City, from Maker's Tool Works, led by CEO and founder Jeff Davis.
After a period of beta testing, Maker's Tool Works began selling its MendelMax printer for about $1,600 to the public in January. Davis said he has shipped the ready-to-build printer to U.S. cities and to countries such as New Zealand, Australia, Taiwan, Russia, Poland and Switzerland.
Previously, this type of technology, known as rapid prototyping, cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. Manufacturers used rapid prototype machines to test and tweak objects they had designed before mass-producing them; universities also would use them in architecture or engineering programs.
But the 3-D printing process, as Davis recently demonstrated in his office just west of downtown Oklahoma City, is simple: Find a ready-made design available on the Internet, tell the computer to print it and watch the object grow from the base up. Those who want to create their own designs will have to know how to use computer modeling software.
Before visitors arrived, Davis downloaded to his computer a pyramidlike design called a broken obelisk, available on the Web, to show them. When they got there, he typed on his computer to start the process, and the 3-D printer machine sitting on his desk nearby beeped and whirred into action.
A bright green spool of filament — the plastic used to create the design similar to ink on a paper printer — sat on top of the printer, feeding a heated nozzle used to build the pyramid. Materials for that small of an object cost just a few cents, Davis said.
“Literally it starts out with the plastic up top,” Davis explained as the device began drawing the pyramid's green square base on a heated flat surface. “It goes down into the print head, which has a motor in it that pulls it in, and it's very precise so it knows exactly how to control the flow. And it still to me is almost magic.”
As the printer created the object one level at a time, Davis showed off other things he had recently printed — a cartoonlike dragon head, a plastic Quadcopter part and a replica of Darth Vader's TIE Fighter from “Star Wars.”
The possibilities for 3-D printing have many people amazed. Whether they want to use the process for their businesses, homes, school projects, artistic endeavors or hobbies, nearly everyone can think of something they'd like to print from scratch.