(From Black & White to 3D)—How Printing Has Changed in the 21st Century25 Jul, 2013
According to Faces of Innovation, there was that era when offices literally buzzed with the sound of dot-matrix printers churning out letters, memos, and invoices; perforated paper unfolding from a stack stored behind or beneath them. Today printing technology has evolved from two-dimensional images and text to 3D tools, toys and other objects. 3D printers have transformed the Internet from a forum of text and ideas to a medium through which people can share real, physical objects. Through high-speed broadband Internet, large 3D files can be shared around the world instantly. 3D printing technology is likely to bring about a revolution in innovation and product development spurring new technologies that could not have been imagined five years ago.
The first modern printers were birthed during an era where PC-compatible computers had no on-screen graphics capabilities. This is to say all they could produce was text or a crude (but often clever) use of characters to represent a drawing. Think of a smiley face in an email using a colon, and an open parenthesis, : ). That was the graphic capability of most PCs.
With the advent of the graphical user interface and word processing programs, like Word Perfect and later Microsoft Word, the need for printers that could reproduce what was on your screen became obvious.
HP and Apple produced the first laser printers in 1984 and 1985 respectively the HP LaserJet was built for a business environment and sold for $3,495 ($7,855 today). The first HP laser printer designed for consumer use wouldn’t hit the market for five years. It was half as fast as that first commercial printer – four pages per minute – and still cost $1,495 ($2,815 today).
Through all that time the laser printers were like Model Ts: You could print in any color you wanted as long as it was black.
Today we don’t think twice about our printers until we see the prices of replacement ink cartridges. They are fast, reliable, and will print whatever you can send to it in whatever color(s) you desire.
And now we are seeing an evolution from 2D to 3D printing.
In general, every printer works approximately the same way: A microscopic amount of ink from a ribbon or a cartridge is laid down on the paper. What, an innovator named Chuck Hull asked in the mid-1980s, would happen if we laid down two microscopic layers or two thousand, and instead of ink we used plastic or metal?
The answer was 3D printing.
According to PC Magazine, they define this “additive fabrication” process as:
Building plastic and metal parts directly from CAD [Computer Aided Design] drawings that have been cross sectioned into thousands of layers. It provides a faster and less costly alternative to machining (cutting, turning, grinding and drilling solid materials).
3D printing is used for rapid prototyping of complicated parts that would otherwise require expensive and time-consuming machining. 3D printing is “additive,” while machining involves cutting material away to form the final shape, a “subtractive” process.
3D printers are also used for low-quantity manufacturing of everything from replacement parts of large machines to dental implants and other medical objects.
As with laser technology printers, the price of 3D printers has come down dramatically. A quick search of Amazon.com brings up a 3D printer (that gets 41/2 starts from reviewers) selling for $1,199. Not free, but far from the $20,000 price tag that was attached to the earliest models.
The falling price and improving technology has made 3D printers improved products in many high-cost industries. In the medical field 3D printers are producing customized, lightweight, casts and testing has begun on printing with live human cells. For instance, scientists are using a 3D printer to create living bone by using stem cells as “ink.” Even NASA is using 3D printers, recently printing a rocket engine injector shaving 8 months off development time and reducing costs by 70 percent.
Beyond using this new technology to just produce rocket parts, 3D printers could drastically change space exploration. If space shuttles have 3D printers they can create tools and parts in space, instead of waiting months for a new mission to transport the supplies. All they need is a communications link to earth to transmit the object’s 3D model.
3D printers are adding another medium of communication to the Internet. Where the Internet has been used to share text, photos, voice and videos, the addition of 3D printing allows for the sharing of actual products and full ideas. And because of high-speed broadband, large 3D files can be shared in mere seconds. Pairing printing technology with broadband Internet only increases the power of both products, and may soon change the way businesses innovate, products are made and how we live.
That’s a lot of innovation in just a few decades.
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