We all know that 3D printing, or additive printing as some would call it, is the new in thing. For many of us who have seen the promo videos of the various brands and start ups that are rapidly filling up this space, the idea is both novel as it is borne out of common sense. But it is just the beginning. At the moment the 3D printer is merely an arm that sequentially lays heated plastic in layers. Once the plastic cools, which is very fast, the material solidifies and the item that's being printed assumes its rigid shape. But while everyone was wondering, "What Next?" Shapeways jumped in and decided that they would change the game a little by changing the plastic material that is fed to the printer. Instead of the usual material that dries to a solid shape, they developed a material that becomes elastic after printing.
This innovation steps in the right direction as far as the personal 3D printer is concerned. All this while we could print little things, which were, frankly, cute but inconsequential. You could print a boot, but could you wear it? No. The material was too rigid and it would break after some wear, but not before really blistering your feet. However, with elastic material, you could print a sandal and it would stretch like a sandal. This makes it more practical.
Elasto Plastic - the apt name for the material, has taken an already brilliant idea in the 3D printing space and catapulted it a couple of notches higher by making the printed products functional. The evolution of 3D printing has two separate paths to take. It needs to improve the way material is used and it needs to be able to do different types of material that have different physical properties. As 3D printing evolves we will see new layers of technology, from software that control the printer to the materials that form the products, take shape.
As it stands, Shapeways has already used Elasto Plastic to make a few products that are pretty neat. They have a phone cover that stretches and has a little bounce to it and a couple of other shapes that use the elasticity of the material to its benefit. Innovation is sometimes about building little ideas on the shoulders of big ones.