The 3D printing revolution is well under way and as it spreads, the level of innovation just keeps on climbing. While using technology to create 3D objects has been around for a long time, until recently, it has been very expensive and reserved for engineers and industry. There were few materials to print from and access to the technology was limited. Now we’re not just printing prototypes, we’re printing art, jewelery, circuit boards, entire homes, artificial limbs, hearing aids, spare shower hooks and so much more.
3D Printing 101
For a 3D printer to print you need to give it some geometry to work with. 3D models consist of vertices (points), edges and polygons all based in a 3 axis space. The vertices join up to make the edges, the edges join to create the polygons and the polygons connect to give you a surface. There are various ways to create your geometry and a host of 3D applications to do it in, including open source and web-based solutions. Alternatively you can use a 3D scanner that uses lasers and cameras to capture the geometry of objects. These scanners create large amounts of data in point clouds that form the surface of the object.
3D Printing Process
There are a few things that must occur before you are ready to print. First, ensure the geometry is stable and complete with acceptable wall thickness. Again, there are multiple tools available to review your model online, including open source options, to check for weaknesses. Each printer has its own software that essentially breaks your model down into thousands of layers. The width of these layers is called the resolution. If you have your own printer, you most likely have a material in the form of a reel of filament. This filament is forced through a heated nozzle that is moving across a flat surface and prints each layer of your model. Imagine building a cake and adding each layer as you go, once all the layers are down, the cake is complete. Other techniques do involve laser sintering powdered material. The result is a smoother surface but the machine is much more expensive.
When all the layers are complete, your 3D object will be ready to go. Some finishing touches may include removing excess material or applying some paint to give the 3D object some colour.
Soon you will be able to print at home with a unit on your desk for less than $400. Other routes to printing include companies that will print your model for you with a variety of materials and ship them to your door. The overall effect of this accessibility is that more people are trying 3D printing at a low cost. This leads to more creativity and innovation throughout the whole process.
Adapting 3D Printing to New Tech
An innovation that supports creativity was the development of a conductive plastic based on the more common ABS plastic compound. Using a mixture of carbon and graphene, mixed with the ABS, engineers were able to print simple circuit boards. This was great news, however the overall resistance of the material was still too high for any real life applications in that context.
Conductive plastic is still a very exciting concept, especially when you think of it in a touch screen setting. For example, the widely popular iPhone screen uses changes in electrical current to determine touch points. A conductive plastic would allow printed objects to act as touch devices as they conduct the body’s electrical current.
3D Printed Stamper Powers Smartphone Loyalty Program
A unique use of conductive plastic is a smartphone based loyalty program that relies on unique 3D printed hardware that registers stamps to get you free coffee (after your first 6 of course). Based around an App that stores your stamps and list’s all the locations available around the user, each business uses a “stamper” printed just for them using a unique gesture configuration. The conductive plastic of the hardware acts as 5 static fingers that the app recognizes to achieve a successful stamp. With 5 points of contact across a surface no larger than the palm of your hand, the combinations are endless. This makes acquiring fraudulent stamps near impossible. It also gives businesses with more than one location extra metrics to track loyalty behavior as each location can have their own unique hardware. More secure than barcode or QR scanning and a reliable, low resistance piece of POS technology all because 3D printed circuit boards didn’t work so well.
The only reason this solution is possible is down to the evolution of printable materials and the very fact that 3D printing allows for such rapid production and unique design variations. The revolution is happening and this is only the beginning.
3D Printing and Smartphones Provide Secure Loyalty Rewards Programs