The Future is here at QC


This is Matt Greco:

Yep, in the tan.

Yep, in the tan.

Matt teaches digital image-making and photography here at QC, and is also responsible for all the 3D printing that happens in the digital imaging lab. That figurine you see is a 3D print of a full body scan taken of Matt. Last week, I met Matt in the lab in Klapper Hall to see all the exciting things that were going on right under my nose.

I have read plenty about 3D printing. I have held plastic trinkets made in a 3D printer. But I had never before seen them in action. It is hard then to describe my excitement when I first walked in. I was immediately treated to the site of the machines in full gear, the print head methodically pumping away on a job. The noises coming from the machines sounded amusingly like a Star Wars droid.  What I was most struck by was the normalcy of it all. Students were milling about the lab, conducting their business. Matt greeted me, showed me around, and showed me the work he does with printing. We then spoke for some time about the history, mechanics, challenges, and future of 3D printing. After my visit, I was convinced that what is quietly taking place on campus is part of a larger revolution.

If you want to see printing in action, check out this video I took of the printers in the lab:

The lab has five 3D printers of varying sizes. Some are few years old and some are very new. The older ones are slower and more temperamental, but the newer ones are noticeably faster. There are certainly hurdles in the technology, and sometimes a successful print needs a lot of troubleshooting. One out of every five prints is unsuccessful on its first try. The machines need a lot of maintenance, such as frequent oiling, and parts need to be replaced often.

But all accounted for, the process is pretty effective. My chief interest was to know if the process is comparable with a home paper printer, because that will ultimately determine its mainstream appeal. I assumed it would be more complicated then portrayed in the media. Turns out, its pretty much the same. It really is just like printing. You download an (STL) file, tweak it a little with software (that comes with the printer!) if you so desire, and click print. Now, it does take hours for a finished product, but starting the process (download time, tweaking, machine heating up) takes fifteen minutes from start to finish.

This cup that finished printing during my visit only took three hours and three minutes to print. Within a day, you can have a new set of cups:

Total print time: 3:03

Total print time: 3:03

It turns out that 3D printing has been around in manufacturing since the 80’s but has only recently become accessible to the public due to new technological advances. Still, according to Matt, the 3D explosion is only a matter of when, not if. Two things that are currently holding it back? Speed and materials. For bigger items, it could take a printer almost sixteen hours to finish. That is a large investment in energy and resources. And materials? Most commercial printers, like the ones in the lab, can only use plastic. Because of these drawbacks, the lab uses printing for niche projects, like the 3D scanning you saw before, design work, and making molds for bronze casting. The cynics abound when it comes to 3D printing, but new advances are happening everyday. You can purchase everything in the QC lab on Amazon right now. If we are at this level today, the sky is the limit. Expect this technology to be standard in your home in ten years time.

A row of printers in the image lab.

A row of printers in the image lab.

 

3d-items

Some cool 3D printed creations.

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