Ever made something out of nothing?
Elayna Richardson-Kuzyk has. The Grade 4 student drew a necklace on a computer at Landing Trail School recently, and now the school's 3D printer is making it real.
"It has a square as the diamond," she explains, and cylinders and hexagons as the chain. She designed the 3D model for it after just a few days of practise.
The nearby printer buzzes away as it builds the blue plastic necklace one microscopic layer at a time. The printer is a simple, microwave-sized device that can, in theory, make anything you can imagine.
Two decades ago, you would have needed millions to have access to one of these things and a college degree to run it. Now, they're cheap enough that students like Raleigh Andrews can have them in their libraries, and simple enough that she's mastered it in less than a week.
"You can make brains," she says, as she pulls up a model of one on the computer. She's made a flower, and other students have made knives and tiny birdhouses.
"It's really fun," Andrews says.
"You can make whatever you want."
3D printers are catching on in Canada, and technologists say they could revolutionize the world. And the key to that happening might lie in putting them in the hands of our most creative thinkers: kids.
Printing a revolution
Over in his basement workshop in Edmonton, Bryce Borgel hands over a customized plastic Gazette logo that has just emerged from his 3D printer.
"You can take this with you," he says of the object that, an hour ago, did not exist outside of a computer.
Borgel is the owner of Titan Innovative Designs, one of a number of rapid prototyping/3D-printing companies in Edmonton.
A trained machinist who used to fix pump-jacks in the oil patch, Borgel, 32, says he first saw a 3D printer in action 15 years ago.
"I was fascinated with how you can make something from nothing."
Borgel says he's since made many objects for dental, oil and agricultural firms, including scale models of buildings and complex replacement parts.
The 3D printer is basically a predecessor to the Star Trek replicator, says St. Albert's Paul Godsmark, chief technology officer with the Canadian Automated Vehicles Centre of Excellence. Like that fictitious device, it's an automated machine that can reproduce objects on command.
3D printing or rapid prototyping has been around since at least 1983, says Patrick Wirt, production manager with the B.C.-based 3D printing company Corbel 3D. It was (and still is) used to quickly crank out prototypes or small numbers of complex parts that would otherwise have to be hand-made by specialists.
Whereas 3D printers used to cost millions, Wirt says you can build a basic printer nowadays for as little as $400. (Metal-printing models still cost millions, he adds.)
Borgel says 3D printing is part of the next industrial revolution, as it turns traditional machining on its head. Instead of removing material from a block to make something (as happens with a lathe), you're piling stuff up – it's additive, not subtractive, manufacturing.
Wirt says that additive manufacturing is much less wasteful than subtractive, and can manufacture complex objects that are tough or expensive to produce normally – hearing aids, for example, or prosthetic limbs.
"For specialized parts and for prototyping, 3D printing is becoming the way to go."
This technology has big implications for manufacturing, Godsmark says – imagine a factory that could build every part of a car at once instead of having them shipped in from all over, or a store that printed products on demand instead of stocking them on shelves.
"It changes the nature of logistics."
And it opens up new possibilities for education.
Landing Trail School has used its 3D printer to set up a Makerspace – a specialized classroom that provides students with physical tools (such as a 3D printer) with which to express their creativity.
Students build math, teamwork, and problem-solving skills to figure out how to use the printer and explain how to work it to others, says teacher Amanda Langford.
"You know it's a valuable lesson for them when they are willing to work on it all weekend without being told to."
Principal Darryl Propp says he was skeptical that Grade 4 students could do much with the printer at first, but is now amazed by what they've accomplished.
"The exciting part is we don't even know what all the potential (of this) is yet."
How it works
3D printing starts out with a 3D model created using specialized software, Borgel says.
The computer then slices the model into thousands of micron-thick layers and sends the plans for each layer to the printer, which usually consists of a mobile print head and platform.
In household models, the print head acts as a super-accurate glue gun, squeezing out lines of melted metal or plastic to sketch out one layer of the model. The platform then drops down a few microns so the head can print the next layer.
Industrial models generally work the same way (print a layer, lower the platform, print another), except they often use lasers to fuse metal powders or liquid polymers instead.
The material you use determines the traits of your object, Borgel says. For example, this curvaceous model deck chair is made of plastic infused with sawdust, making it light and flexible, while this brass-infused component is hard and heavy.
"The most fascinating material is called graphene," Borgel says, as it's conductive and can let you print circuit boards of any shape you want.
Borgel's printer plays a cheerful tune when it's done – a process that can take hours in the case of some complex designs. Once it's finished, he chips the product off the printing platform and files off any extraneous bits.
Where's my replicator?
Godsmark predicts that 3D printers will be as common as photocopiers within five years, but adds that they'll have to overcome many practical limitations first.
Printed products are often weaker than regular ones, for example, as they're built from layers. Hit them parallel to those layers, and they split like mica.
It's also often faster and cheaper to make products conventionally. 3D printers are great if you want a few specialized parts, but conventional machining has the edge when it comes to speed and volume, Wirt says.
There are ethical concerns as well. Legislators raised the alarm several years ago about the world's first 3D-printed gun, for example, concerned that it could lead to a boom in unregulated firearms.
"The one thing I really hate is seeing people promoting printing guns and weapons," Borgel says, as it takes away from the good this technology can do.
"What 3D printing can do is it can save people. It can print hearts. It can print organs. It can print ears. It can print biometrics and limbs for people."
Copyright is also a big issue, Wirt says. 3D scanners and printers can let people make cheap copies of trademarked products in their own homes.
"It's hard to regulate what someone can create in the comfort of their home."
Borgel and Wirt say one of the biggest barriers in 3D printing right now is 3D design – it takes a lot of time, and few people know how to do it. 3D scanners can help, but only if the product you want already exists.
Both believe the solution is to introduce kids to these technologies at a young age so they grow up knowing how to use them.
"Kids in school now can develop and design stuff and take their imagination and make it physical," Wirt says.
"Eventually I see in the coming years 3D modelling becoming a skill as commonplace as being able to use the Internet."
Borgel says he gets a sense of pride from being able to make intricate computer designs a physical reality through 3D printing.
"Your idea is in your hands."