Enter the Dot Matrix: 3-D Printers Go Mainstream

By Talia Beechick

Imagine this: you’re shopping online for that perfect something. You find it, pay for it, and confirm the order. Behind you a large printer whirs to life, humming and vibrating (and maybe emitting some cool strobe and fog effects). In 60 seconds the printer door pops open with your new purchase gleaming, and still warm to the touch.

While many might write off this scenario as a sci-fi pipe dream, a growing subculture of hobbyists sees this as the inevitable future for 3-D printers (sans the fog and strobes), which after years of dwelling in back alleys of the hacking, 3-D-printing subculture are finally becoming affordable and user-friendly enough to reach a wide audience.

How Does A 3-D Printer Work?

For the uninitiated, a 3-D printer works exactly as the name suggests. Where a conventional printer builds letters by rapidly laying down hundreds of small ink dots, line by line, the 3-D printer makes objects with depth, length, and width one micro-globule of material – typically plastic or resin – at a time. The liquid material quickly hardens after it is dispensed, and the object emerges, layer by tedious layer.

MakerBot Industries Thing-O-Matic 3d printer


One of a new generation of affordable and accessible 3-D printers is MakerBot’s “Thing-O-Matic”, a desktop 3-D printer sold in kit form. Upon assembly, this printer is hooked up to a PC via USB port and can print actual objects designed on the PC or objects saved on an SD card. These objects can range from chess pieces to action figures, with a pound of ABS plastic included in the kit itself. On sale for $1,225, the Thing-O-Matic appeared on the market in 2011 and instantly attracted digital designers and inventors with its experimental and innovative capabilities.

Months later, Brook Drumm invented the Printrbot, a simplified and smaller version of the Thing-O-Matic. Available starting at $500, rather than the thousands that other “affordable” 3D printers can cost, the Printrbot aims to make 3-D printers common in households by using smaller-sized hardware and an easier modeling and construction process for beginners. Printrbots have even been introduced into schools to aid academic pursuits, and makers seek to open a store soon featuring the 3-D Printrbot Kits. The printer within the beginner’s kit is approximately 5 by 5 inches and runs off a 19v power supply. Upgrades to 8 or 12 inch versions are available as well.

So how exactly does the machine turn a virtual 3-D model into a meatspace 3-D object? It all starts with the proper software, with ReplicatorG being the recommended program for beginners. Not sure how to input your own design using the software? It’s never been easier to access the once-insular world of 3-D printing—Makerbot Industries has now created Thingiverse, a community-focused website dedicated to the sharing of digital designs created by the tech-savvy folk out there. These pre-made designs include a variety of objects, such as scissors, wire cutters, a kazoo and even more complicated designs like sewing machines – all available to download at thingiverse.com.

3-D printers have already created some pretty ingenious items. Although people commonly print simple, smaller-sized items such as plastic toys, the printing jobs are becoming increasingly sophisticated. Last June the first ever printed bikini graced the beach! Makers used a material called Nylon 12, which is strong, flexible, and, of course, waterproof. Selective laser sintering (SLS) connected thousands of circular plates by thin strings, creating a surface that was both flexible but solid. This bikini is currently on sale for a rather steep $200-$300 per piece, although makers are expecting the price to fall as printed clothing gains popularity.

Medical Use Of 3-D Printers

It’s not all cheap knickknacks and expensive bikinis; the 3-D printer holds great promise for practical applications in medicine. Engineers from both the Netherlands and Belgium collaborated to create the first printed lower jaw implant. Built from digital model of the original jaw, the synthetic replacement was used to help an 83-year-old patient suffering from an intense jaw infection and managed to restore full mandibular movement within the same day as the surgery.

3d printed jaw bone

The 3-D-printing of the jaw involved additive laser melting technology. Weighing in slightly heavier than its bone equivalent, this printed jaw implant reached about 107 g (3.77 oz.) and was covered in plasma sprayed artificial bone. The surgery was deemed successful, as it removed the inflamed mandible, installed the implant, restored the shape and structure of the patient’s face, and allowed the patient to fully function after a relatively short period of recovery.

Can You Print A House Using A 3-D Printer?

What if, however, the printers managed to create an entire house? Italian inventor and chairman of Monolite UK, Ltd. Enrico Dini has created a massive 3-D printer, titled the D-Shape, which is described as a “robotic building system” rather than a printer. This system uses sand and an inorganic binding agent to create an extremely durable substance which closely resembles marble. This material is stronger than concrete and is layered to create the structure from the ground up. Though on a grand scale, the process itself is similar to smaller printers: a nozzle moves along a path, layering a liquid adhesive compound (a glue-like substance) on top of sand with a solid catalyst mixed in. Sand is then added to reinforce the structure.

D-Shape 3d Printer

The D-Shape has the potential to print a two-story building, complete with stairs, partition walls, columns and domes. If this invention proves to be a success, it will build structures four times faster than traditional construction methods and cut the cost in half! It is also environmentally friendly, amounting far less waste than typical building construction.

Although D-Shape is still being enhanced and perfected by Dini, he is currently proving its success by using it to construct a nine cubic meter pavilion for the town of Pontedera, Italy. The potential for D-Shape, however, is out of this world (if you’ll excuse the expression)—Dini is also in discussion with European Space Agency (ESA) officials to use D-Shape in ESA’s Aurora program, the EU’s ambitious space exploration plan. This would require Dini to modify his machine to use moon dust as a material to construct a moon base, and perhaps beyond.

It’s not hard to imagine a future where the 3-D printer sits in the home alongside its 2-D brother, and people pay for downloadable designs for toys, replacement parts, or their personal inventions. As the material science presses on, the sophistication of what these printers can build will only increase, to the point where very few online purchases are actually shipped. Instead they will be produced and delivered in the home, still warm, with maybe some fog and strobe light effects.

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