3D Printing: The Early Years

3D printing: old cell phone

Technology moves fast

Shine a spotlight into the future, and there will come a day when our current concept of 3D-printed stuff might look a little crude. When you see cell phones the size of bricks, plain-old, white sneaker soles and clunky computer workstations, the modern-day counterparts make the old versions look laughable.Even the high-tech movies are dated within just a few years, mostly because of how old the technology appears in the film.

But the primitive nature of new technology doesn’t stop genius. Forward-thinking innovators adopt new technologies regardless of what a new technology can’t do. All they see is what it can do. So let’s talk about the movie industry. Remember when CGI was the next big thing? Special effects in pre-CGI movies look pretty fake now, don’t they?

One special effects studio, Legacy Effects is using 3D printers to move beyond CGI. Legacy Effects has been involved with special effects and costume design for numerous science fiction and fantasy movies—Life of Pi, Hunger Games and Twilight to name a few. By creating detailed miniature costumes, Legacy Effects designers can anticipate exactly what the full-scale model will look like. Once they’ve got it right, they print out the real thing on a 3D printer, printing out one piece at a time.

Jason Lopes, lead systems engineer for Legacy Effects, described it like this at RAPID 2014 in Detroit, Michigan: “That’s what’s great about this technology. It’s not just guesswork anymore. We’re not just making a suit by hand, then fitting or trying to fit an actor into it. We do it all by computer now. We can identify problems on day one, before the actual costume has been started.” And while they start with a CAD file, what they end up with is something real, unlike CGI.

3D Printing: The only limit is what you can dream up

The variety of ways that companies are putting 3D printers to work is pretty exciting. We are all watching new 3D printing applications put into use almost every day. Engineers, designers, architects, physicians—all kinds of professionals—are exploring the ‘white space’ in their fields and using 3D printing technology to fill it with faster, more detailed, more scalable ways to do what they were doing before.

We are on the front end of a 3D printing technology explosion. Hobbyists are having fun with it, manufacturers are integrating it into their workflow, designers are creating new designs, engineers are building new materials and some people are building 3D printers from old parts. Everybody has their own entry into 3D printing, which is how new technologies often start out.

But what we can anticipate on down the road is more standardization and accessibility for people who have never seen one and don’t quite understand what a 3D printer does. To most people, 3D printing technology is hard to imagine, except that it sounds futuristic and sort of like magic. But this ignorance will be short-lived, which is why entrepreneurs and innovators are working hard to get on the front end of a big curve.

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