Mad About Science: 3D Modeling, 3D Printing

By Brenden Bobby
Reader Columnist

Life imitates art, as they say. When it comes to 3D modeling, I’m pretty sure it’s life imitating art imitating life imitating art. Or something…

In case you’ve been taking a nap for the past 26 years, 3D modeling is the practice of using a computer to create useful shapes. This is a gross oversimplification, because that makes it sound useless. It’s not useless. 3D modeling to the 21st century is what forging bronze was for the formerly neolithic man. Using a computer, you can flawlessly create a piece for a machine that’s too small and delicate to make by hand, or even with your run-of-the-mill fabricator.

3D modeling and 3D printing go together like peanut butter and jelly, Abbott and Costello, Kim and Kanye. OK, maybe not as totally crazy as those two. 3D modeling gives us the ability to lay out whatever we imagine onto a surface, and 3D printing lets us bring it into the world. At that point, you’re only restricted by the machine you’re trying to print with and the material you’re trying to use! In the cases of extremely well-funded sources like cutting edge hospitals and scientific research facilities, doctors and researchers are going as far as building organs from cellular filament. I mean, you’ve watched “Grey’s Anatomy,” it must be true!

But seriously, James Woo of Wake Forest School of Medicine in our country has demonstrated the ability to 3D print fully-functional skin. We aren’t talking prosthetics, we’re talking actual skin formed by a 3D printing device. So far, it’s only been applied to pigs, but our army has been pouring tremendous amounts of funding into this project to be able to help treat soldiers wounded by IEDs and burns from other weapons.

If the fact that we’re able to print freaking skin doesn’t blow your mind, I don’t know how to help you.

If skin isn’t your thing, how about cars? Local Motors is an Arizona-based company that 3D printed the Strati, the first-ever 3D printed car. Literally the whole thing came out of a printer. The first one was proof of concept, now they’re ready to start producing more by order. If you’re in the market for a new ride, maybe you should look them up. I guarantee you’ll have the coolest whip on the block. Want to know the coolest thing about the Strati? It only took 44 hours to construct. Eat your heart out, Henry Ford.

3D modeling isn’t strictly for printing things out. Just about every game you’ve played in the past 20 years has used extensive 3D modeling to bring every manner of landscape from fantasy to sci-fi alive in front of your eyes. Most movies in the past decade and a half likewise use extensive 3D modeling (oft referred to as “CGI” for computer-generated imagery). Crossing the boundary between the digital world and reality with 3D modeling are holograms like the ones engineers designed to bring Michael Jackson and Tupac Shakur back to life… so to speak.

To elaborate on that, that was actually a lighting trick used by stage actors dating back to 1862 called the Pepper’s Ghost trick. Cool as it may be, this isn’t an article about Pepper’s Ghost. If you’re curious, ask a librarian (they’ll yell at me later).

Because of the prevalence of 3D modeling in every facet of budding industry, from entertainment to manufacturing, much of this is being taught in school right now. I’m sure some parents reading this have seen their kids bringing weird colorful plastic doohickeys home from time to time. The uninformed might think these to be tokens of a trivial fad, but the informed know that their children are getting prepared for a future unlike anything we’ve ever seen. Personally, I wish this had been taught in the Jurassic, when I went to school, so I wouldn’t have to play old-man catch up now.

If you’ve got an interest in this and would like to meet other interested souls or learn a bit more about 3D modeling and printing, there is a 3D printing club at the library that meets every fourth Wednesday of the month from 4:30-6 p.m.. If I’m not mistaken, that means the next one is Feb. 27!

Before I go, I wanted to give a shout out to my former coworkers who have been on the front lines of knowledge dispersal after I left them high and dry to pursue my own adventures. Kudos to Emily, Vanessa, Joel, Kimber and Amanda for helping bring Sandpoint into the future, or present, or whatever time it was when I said the future was now… then.

Be patient and thank a librarian. They bust their humps to help you succeed!

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