When Xerox introduced the first plain paper photocopier in 1959, it revolutionized the business world. Reproducing a letter, chart or photograph in a few seconds changed how people worked, and made big profits for the inventors ─ not to mention the paper industry.
Fast forward a half century and we enter a new dimension, literally. Reproductions once limited to a flat sheet of pulp now come to life in three tactile dimensions and can be put to use as everything from airplane parts to bio-implants.
Once an experimental and expensive technology, three-dimensional printing has grown into a multi-billion industry with unlimited potential, according to the organizers of “3D Printing the Future – The Exhibition,'' opening Saturday at the Museum of Science & Industry in Tampa. The show offers a variety of printed objects, live demonstrations, family activities and examples of how this desk-top marvel could reshape the way things are designed and manufactured.
“3D printing has been around a few years, but we're now starting to see some amazing applications of the technology,'' says Anthony Pelaez, MOSI's director of innovation. “There's a lot of excitement about it, especially in bio-printing. It's something science fiction writers only dreamed about.''
Also known as “additive manufacturing,'' 3D printing is the process of making an object from a digital model. It builds the object from thousands of layers of computer-assisted cross sections. Unlike traditional techniques for making a toy or tool, it requires no grinding, cutting, or drilling. The MOSI exhibit explains how the process works and includes an array of 3D printed objects, such as a prosthetic hand, wearable clothing, and a violin that can be played.
“We've put a lot of effort and enthusiasm into creating an experience that will inspire and educate people about 3D printing,'' Pelaez says. “It's very much a behind-the-scenes exhibit and shows how something can be scanned and designed from scratch.''
Most of the practical applications of 3D printing are through prototypes used to test a product's form and function. But the technology continues to appear in more and more unrelated fields. Earlier this year, doctors in Boston used 3D bio printing to advance artificial vascularization by creating synthetic blood vessels. A California engineer developed a large-scale 3D printer that, based on a digital design, can “print'' a 2,500-square-foot house in 24 hours. And in the 2012 James Bond movie “Skyfall,'' a team created a 3D printed replica of a rare and very expensive 1960 Aston Martin sports car. The crew blew up the fake vehicle without a second thought.
Some people believe the relatively low cost to create 3D objects will allow the technology to compete with traditional manufacturing and supply chains. Why buy a product manufactured at an overseas factory when you can make it right at home? But the technology isn't designed for that kind of mass production, says Cathy Lewis, chief manufacturing officer of 3D Systems, in an interview this month in the Wall Street Journal.
“When we look at the cost-value benefit” of 3D printing, she said in the Journal story, “we don't see it eliminating traditional manufacturing.”
Originally conceived in the mid-1980s, 3D printing has taken time to evolve from a development to application stage. Not unlike the Internet during its infancy, nobody quite knew where it would go. But like the Internet, Palaez says, 3D printing can go just about anywhere.
“A technology like this is always a process,'' he says. “Once we start to see 3D printers in the homes of people, they'll be a shift in the way we think about the products we buy. There's no limit to this because it's up to the imagination. It's up to society to decide what to make of it.''
MOSI is partnering with the University of South Florida's College of Arts and Sciences and the Alliance for Integrated Spatial Technologies, a 3D center of study. MOSI also has teamed up with the Dali Museum in St. Petersburg, which is opening the exhibit “Marvels of Illusion” on Saturday.
Anyone who visits one museum will receive a discount on admission to the other. MOSI will offer 50 percent off its admission to visitors with a ticket stub from the Dali Museum.