Resident explores new dimension with 3D printer

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By Rachel Christian

The mechanics and affordability of 3D printers have evolved tremendously in the last decade. What was once a rare and costly investment, mostly relegated to laboratories and high tech businesses, is now more accessible to the average person than ever before.

Mount Vernon resident Chuck Gray purchased his 3D printer at the beginning of June. The city water superintendent is also a Star Wars hobbyist and self-described tinkerer. Gray said his desire to create new things is what motivated him to purchase his new machine.

“I’m always making or building something,” he said. “Whether it’s wooden deck chairs for out back or pieces for a costume, I’ve always liked to create things.”

A 3D printer like Gray’s uses a computer design file that is then split up into hundreds – sometimes even thousands – of 2D layers. The machine then reads the 2D layers as building blocks that it stacks one on top of another to form a three dimensional object.

When 3D printers were less common, an individual often had to create the digital computer design manually, but Gray said now he can simply download pre-existing templates for everything from jewelry to kitchenware straight from the Internet.

Gray ordered his printer online through a website called Gear Best and assembled it over the period of a few days. There were a few hiccups at first, like when there was a line of code missing and a figurine ended up without its head. Much like when a traditional printer gets a paper jam, if the spools of plastic do not feed into the machine properly, it can ruin an entire job. After a short period of trial and error, Gray is now regularly creating a host of different objects.

A print job on Gray’s new machine can take anywhere from about 10 hours to three days. It can form objects that are as large as 15 inches tall by a foot wide, but they can be even larger if they are printed in sections and then glued together.

One day last week, Gray’s machine was methodically layering together a figurine for his daughter. Most 3D printers use headed plastic to create the desired object (Gray uses a plastic made with corn known as PLA). But the technology of 3D printers is still progressing, and may one day have the capability to create almost anything.

“They already have models were it can make objects from a synthetic wood that is so close to real wood, you can stain and varnish it,” Gray noted. “Once they can figure out how to synthesize organic objects, then they can 3D print things like food or repair human body parts.”

Until then, this Mount Vernon resident is content to create and explore his new piece of technology on a smaller scale.