How to print whale bones, robot parts and food

I’ve often heard people talk about written words ‘jumping off of the page’.  This figurative description brings to mind the lyrical dialogue of Jonathan Safron Foer or the vivid detail of JRR Tolkein. But what if ideas were to LITERALLY come off of the page?

That’s where 3D printing comes in. The technology allows one to print plastic layers on top of plastic layers in order to form a three dimensional shape. Engineers have used this technology for years to develop quick prototypes of their designs. Recent advances in the technology have made more durable products for less money and in less time which has brought 3D printing to the at-home hobbyist. New technologies have also made industrial mass-production feasible.

There are two main types of 3D printing:

Extrusion printing uses a heated nozzle to melt solid plastic that deposits plastic layers using computer controlled movements. Here’s a quick Vine of that process:

Stereolithography uses a computer-controlled laser to harden liquid plastic resin at different locations on each layer. Check out this really cool video about the process.

Each technology starts with an engineer’s part drawing which is converted to the computer code to move the machine to build the desired shape.

We’ve just begun printing leg parts for our robot on a Makerbot Replicator 2. Here you can see one completed RoboLobster leg assembly:


Once the code and settings are worked out to print the part as desired, we can just leave the printer alone overnight to print all the parts we need. It takes about an hour to print some of the bigger robot leg parts so overnight we can print enough for an entire robot.

The possibilities for 3D printing are only limited by our imagination. Recently a group of paleontologists who found a whale skeleton in Chile have 3D printed a replica to hang in the Smithsonian Institute:



Soon you’ll be able to draw in 3D. You can even 3D print chemicals and food! Someday soon astronauts or even you will be printing your own food.


Homeprinted chocolate chip cookies anyone?


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