As if 3D printing wasn't cool enough, you can now "print" objects in stainless steel. That's right, dust off your old Transformers designs, make room in the Monopoly box for a new piece, and get ready for the model budget at your office to sky-rocket. Shapeways, an European 3D printing website that has traditionally worked in plastics and resins, has upped its game by giving you the option to take your airy artistic concepts and fashion them into cold hard steel. Except for some reasonable constraints on size and detail there are no limits to what you can create. Even if you're not a model enthusiast, stainless steel printing holds the promise of machines that can replicate themselves and build anything. A short video of a printed steel object is after the break.
One of the cool things about Shapeways is that they bend over backwards to make it easy for you to make your steel creations. Their traditional 3D printing was mentioned on Singularity Hub a few months ago because they provide clear tutorials, software to get you drafting objects in 3D, and a huge gallery of other designs that you can purchase or use for inspiration. The process from getting the idea in your head to holding the steel object in your hand is as simplified as they can make it. Conceivably you could get the whole design portion done in a few minutes. They have a cool 3D printing introductory video (resin, not steel) - that's after the break, too.
Stainless steel printing, like most 3D printing, is accomplished by the slow layering of material on a substrate. As you watch the printing machine build a design it's like seeing an object grow out of thin air. For stainless steel printing, the layers are formed of steel powder that is held together by a binding material. When the whole model is done, the steel is infused with bronze. It's a flexible process that yields some durable and really cool objects. The price for steel is about 5-6 times greater than for traditional resin or plastic, but you only pay about $10 USD per cubic centimeter.
Still, Shapeways' stainless steel printing is far from perfect. The layering can be a bit obvious in parts, incomplete polishing is a possibility, the lead time is much longer (21 days versus the normal 10), and every design has to be hand-reviewed to make sure it will work. All of these problems are clearly described in a section on the Shapeways stainless steel page titled "expectation management." I would like to take a moment and applaud Shapeways for having both guts and common sense. Listen up Internet, if you want to sell us something cool, put the limitations right up front.
As Singularity Hub discussed a few months ago with Reprap, 3D printing is expanding its horizons. It's moving into your home and, with stainless steel printing, it might just become self-replicating. Metal, with all its conductive goodness, is essential if your going to print machines that could print other machines. Once that happens, manufacturing and production will change forever. In the meantime, I'm going to jump on the Shapeways website. There's this Klein bottle I've been thinking about...