Stereolithography is one of several rapid prototyping systems that product designers use.
A 3D modeling program is used to build a virtual model of a product or part. The 3D file directs a pair of UV lasers in a vat of special resin. Wherever the lasers meet, the resin solidifies. A physical prototype of the model is created layer by layer.
Although stereolithography was introduced by 3D Systems back in the late ‘80s, the process still looks like something from a science fiction film.
Different resins have different properties. For instance, some resins are more flexible than others.
Many manufacturers use rapid prototyping models to create molds for everything from kitchen appliances to car parts.
I used stereolithography to create prototypes of a fishing lure design, The prototypes helped me refine the lure and I was eventually awarded a utility patent on the design.
Another rapid prototyping system uses ink jet technology to spray material and build up a physical model in layers.
It’s conceivable that in the future, as the range of resins and materials increases, stereolithography and other rapid prototyping processes will begin turning out finished products.
Recently, inkjets were used to spray living tissue (including stem cells) to create a functional two-chamber heart – how’s that for a finished product!
Imagine wanting a specific plastic product. Instead of driving to a store or waiting for an online order to arrive, you go online, download the product’s 3D file and have your own stereolithography machine “cook up” the part for you.
If needed, you could also customize the 3D model before building the part. Perhaps you’d want to shave off a corner in order to make sure the part fit just right on a specific irregular surface.
If you lived in a remote location, far from stores or FedEx/UPS/DHL delivery routes (Alaska? Tahiti? The moon?), you could not only create your own products, you could build your own replacement parts. Say the drive belt for your vintage Kirby vacuum cleaner breaks. Assuming you have the right resin, you could get the proper belt’s 3D model online and build a replacement part. You’d be back to sucking up dust devils in no time.
Could this be the next big app?
Well it’ll be a long time before stereolithography machines are priced low enough to be affordable to the masses. Perhaps, things will progress along the lines of Kinko’s. Printers and copy machines were once so expensive that few individuals and small companies owned their own. Kinko’s filled the niche. Now that’s no longer the case, Kinko’s deals mostly with large copy orders, oversized printing and offers other services that have yet to become affordable to the mass market.
As the technology and range of resins progresses, maybe the number of stereolithography service bureaus will expand Kinko’s-like, filling the need for consumers until the technology is affordable and small enough to go into their homes.