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3D Printing Gets Boost With New Materials

By - Source: Tom's Guide US | B 9 comments

Emerging Objects uses a variety of materials for 3D printing — in this case, wood.Emerging Objects uses a variety of materials for 3D printing — in this case, wood.

3D printing holds the promise to transform the world in ways not yet imagined. But mention 3D printing to someone, and their first thought will probably be of a toy or rough prototype. And why not? With few exceptions, the 3D-printed objects accessible to most people are made out of plastic. But higher quality materials are available to industrial printers — and will soon be coming to consumer models, enabling a whole new era of creativity and polished products.

Most 3D printers today work by taking a digital file depicting a three-dimensional object, "slicing" it into horizontal layers, and then laying down each layer by extruding material. Plastics like PLA (polylactic acid, derived from corn and used in objects like soft-drink cups) and ABS (the same plastic used to make LEGO bricks) are often the materials of choice.

And that's fine, until a designer wants to 3D print jewelry, dishware or furniture. (Who wants to eat dinner off a plastic plate, no matter how cool the design?)

Shapeways and other industrial printers

Innovations in the industry mean that new materials are becoming available for 3D printer users all the time. Some companies are working toward selling printers that makers can use in their own homes with an exotic array of materials. Other companies, like New York City-based Shapeways and 3D Systems, offer "cloud-based" 3D printing, in which designers upload a model to a factory with industrial printers that use more sophisticated materials, and the finished product is shipped back to their door.

MORE: How 3D Printing Is Changing Etsy

3D Printing in Clay

"We currently print in over 30 different materials and variations," said Elisa Richardson, PR and communications manager at Shapeways. That includes plastic in multiple colors and finishes, but also stainless steel, sterling silver, gold-plated brass, mock sandstone and ceramics. The company just introduced "Elasto-plastic," a squishy material that designers can use to make rubbery iPhone cases.

The company now has a team dedicated to new material R&D. "We're going to be launching materials quicker," Richardson said.

New consumer 3D printers

At the Alpharetta, Ga.-based Hyrel 3D, the team is also researching multiple plastics and epoxies for use in consumer printers, including a bunch from polymer company Masterbond. But printing in a new material isn't as easy as just loading up a nozzle and going at it. Every material performs differently.

"You're looking for strength, shrinkage," said Hyrel 3D's CEO Karl Gifford. Hyrel 3D's printer can also use clay, but it's tricky. "The clay can't hold really fine features without stippling," or creating flecks on the surface of the clay, Gifford said. "But we're working on software for it."

pizza printing

Hyrel 3D's printers also work with precious metal clay, a clay mixed with powdered metal. "You can print it just like that...and voila, you fire it in a little clay oven and you get amazing jewelry," Gifford told Tom's Guide.

Clay and metal are really just the beginning. Oakland, Calif.-based Emerging Objects has made proof-of-concept 3D prints in paper, wood, cement polymer and even salt. Not only are these materials exciting for their novelty, but paper, and wood are low-cost and renewable. (The paper is pulped recycled newsprint; the printed wood comes from sawdust.)

MORE: NASA Funds 3D Pizza Printer

Printers that the average consumer can buy at home still mostly use plastic, but it may not be long before even home users are printing out new furniture, jewelry or plates. (Hyrel 3D sells its printers to industrial and home users, but only began shipping recently.) Till then, the R&D folks at places like Emerging Objects and Shapeways have the maker community's back.

Follow Rachel Kaufman at @RKaufman. Follow us @tomsguide, on Facebook and on Google+.

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  • 2 Hide
    rwinches , August 15, 2013 2:32 PM
    Check this out also;
    very cool too.
  • 4 Hide
    IndignantSkeptic , August 15, 2013 5:46 PM
    I look forward to when they can print with stem cells. It's for people who don't want to wait for the months it might take for their body parts to regenerate. I love science. All you anti-science idiots deserve to suffer like you made all those unfortunate people suffer by your slowing down of science.
  • 0 Hide
    the_brute , August 15, 2013 10:06 PM
    4 comments, 1 real 3 spam. nice. as for topic cant wait till they do have more materials and it becomes more common place.
  • Display all 9 comments.
  • 0 Hide
    danwat1234 , August 15, 2013 11:02 PM
    Awesome stuff. I have no idea how they can print wood but it will be fantastic and windows 8.1 has native 3d printer support.

    I make about $600 a month at Mcdonalds because I didn't immediately try to start my career after finishing my Associates degree of EET. So, after a few years it's nearly worthless.
  • 1 Hide
    x2ruff4u , August 16, 2013 12:48 AM
    Man tomshardware is really letting it go with these bots spamming. Is there no moderators on this website anymore? I might have to turn my adblock on again if it's going to continue to get worse.
  • 0 Hide
    tntom , August 16, 2013 5:07 AM
    Well that would certainly make doing clay-motion movies easier.
  • 1 Hide
    southernshark , August 16, 2013 7:33 PM
    I can't wait until we can print eyeballs. I want to print out some green eyes, scoop my existing eyeball out with a spoon and stick the green one in.

  • 0 Hide
    IndignantSkeptic , August 17, 2013 4:43 PM
    southernshark, there will be a treatment soon where you can blast your eyes with lasers, but unfortunately it will only make them blue because that is the default color. Much later there may be a treatment where you can pump yourself full of lab engineered disease that will genetically modify all your cells so that you may be able to get the exact color you want, and maybe pass that on to your children so your wife doesn't say "WTF why are our children's eyes not like yours?" and then sue you like that guy who sued his wife for giving him ugly children because she was ugly but he didn't know because she had had plastic surgery which of course doesn't modify genetics. Anyway that should hopefully be a slightly less painful and messy procedure than using a teaspoon.
  • 0 Hide
    JOSHSKORN , August 19, 2013 11:20 PM
    Neato, now print me a sammich.
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