If you've ever thought of inventing a new device or product -- or even perfecting a current device -- you may be wondering how to get started. Building a device from scratch can be time-consuming and complicated, and making the dozens of alterations that may be required for your product to become functional are even more complex. However, with the rise in 3D printing technology, the ability to rapidly create complex prototypes (as well as quickly make changes to these prototypes) has reached an unprecedented level. Read on to learn more about 3D printing and its application in the inventing sphere.
What is 3D printing?
3D printing technology has been around for more than a decade. However, it has only been in the last several years that this technology has evolved to make the 3D printing of items both cost-effective and simple. At its most basic level, 3D printing is the computer-generated construction of an item, generally accomplished by rapidly placing microscopic layers of material on top of one another until the item is completed.
Most 3D-printed items from places like EIGERlab are created from one of several types of polymer plastic, but 3D printers are capable of creating items from paper, wood, metal, and clay. Certain 3D printers are even able to construct items from more than one material -- such as a 3D-printed prosthetic arm that incorporates both metal and plastic pieces.
How can 3D printing be used in the invention context?
Traditionally, inventors often worked by first sketching out a design, then building this design by hand using materials available. Often, these first prototypes did not achieve the inventor's goal, so alterations and improvements were necessary. Once this prototype has proven successful, the inventor must then often figure out a way to mass-produce this item.
Inventors who take advantage of 3D printing technology are able to create prototypes much more quickly and with less effort. The initial sketch of an invention is done on the computer, rather than by hand -- this computer-generated design is then programmed to be compatible with the 3D printer. The 3D printer creates a quick prototype, generally from an inexpensive plastic. This prototype can then be tested and tweaked until a final product is created.
One key advantage of 3D printing is that the prototype need not be solid -- the computer programs that instruct the 3D printer what to create are capable of creating complex items within items. (A whimsical person could even 3D print a set of Russian nesting dolls.)
Another advantage is that the computer program is able to save all changes to the original prototype -- so that when the final invention is completed, all that is necessary in order to mass-produce this invention is to continue to 3D print items based on the most recent prototype, or to provide this computer diagram to a manufacturing facility.
Not only can 3D printing create completely new items from scratch, it can also be used to improve upon existing designs.
One of the most famous examples of 3D printing technology at work is the creation of artificial limbs. Over the course of more than a century, these limbs evolved from wooden pegs attached to the body with leather straps to lifelike plastic and rubber limbs that were fitted to the body with a discreet harness. However, many amputees still had difficulty finding well-fitting limbs. In particular, children were faced with the burden of needing to purchase new limbs every year or two as they grew.
3D printing has permitted doctors and prosthetic manufacturers to create movable prosthetic limbs for a fraction of the cost of traditional prosthetic limbs. Many of the artificial limb designs are "open-source," meaning that these designs are available for anyone to use in their own 3D printer. This type of crowd-sourcing can only lead to better and cheaper products available to the general public.
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