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3D printers

By , 9 Oct 2012

Imagine a machine that can make anything you want. Almost instantly.

It's a bit like the Star Trek replicator - a device looking rather like a microwave oven, but that creates food, not just heats it up.

Science fiction? Fantasy? The food part may be, but the rest is already reality. This is not a technology that might appear in a decade or so, it's here now. Anyone can buy a 3D printer for not much more than £1,000 and prices are falling all the time.

One layer at a time

A 3D printer assembles a solid object one layer at a time using a virtual digital design. The digital design specifies exactly how the object is to be made, making the process highly replicable and reliable. The printer creates the layers from liquid, powder or sheets that are joined or fused together. The materials used are typically polymers, resins, silicone, metals or cement. There are no rivets or screws to hold pieces together. The size of features can be as small as a micron (thousandth of a millimetre). This means that designs of extraordinary complexity can be realised.

Disney is using 3D printing to create new kinds of toys, like the toy monster pictured below. This monster has light-up eyes made using printed light-conducting tubes inside the toy, which is printed from a special polymer. This would be hard to achieve using conventional optical fibre and a traditional manufacturing process.

Disney 3D printing

3D printing is already used commercially in many industries, including jewellery, engineering, aerospace, dental and medical applications.

3D printed braYou might think this example on the right is just a cheap excuse to include a photo of a woman wearing a bra, and you'd be half right. It's an example of a 3D printed bra made from nylon. In the future it should be possible to print clothing from natural materials like cotton or wool, as well as nylon and polyester.

Key advantages

One of the key advantages of using a 3D printer is in the design stage. The design itself is a digital 3D model, created using special software. It's easy to prototype a design, test it and modify it. Then, when it's done, you can produce as many objects from it as you like. Mass production may not yet be economically viable, but for limited production runs, 3D printing may already be quicker and cheaper than conventional manufacturing methods.

The future for manufacturing

3D printers may lead to a resurgence in manufacturing in the West. Watch out China! If 3D printers become cheap enough, then labour costs will cease to be an issue and the only costs will be materials, energy and of course the digital design itself. But don't imagine that this will lead to the creation of millions of manufacturing jobs. Instead, the machines will do all the work. There may, however, be an explosion in jobs for designers able to create designs for printing.

If everyone owned a 3D printer at home, then it might not be necessary to go shopping for physical objects. Instead, you could just download the digital design and print the object yourself. And imagine the scope for customisation! In the way that desktop publishing software and cheap ink-jet printers has made everyone a graphic artist, in the future we might all become designers and craftspeople.

Fab@Home is an open-source project for 3D printers (or "personal fabricators"). It's a good place to start reading if you fancy getting involved yourself. They make DIY printers like this one pictured on the right.

MakerBot sells the MakerBot Replicator 2 (pictured at the top of the page) for just under £2,000.

Of course, there would still be a market for traditional handmade goods. It's mass production in distant factories that seems to be under threat. Henry Ford introduced his Model T car in 1908. Would anyone have imagined until recently that the mass production revolution that he spawned might last for not much longer than a century?

Karl Marx wanted workers to own the means of production, so maybe he would have approved of the invention of 3D printers. On the other hand, it hardly looks likely to bring forth the demise of capitalism. On the contrary, just like the computer revolution that enabled office workers to leave their desks and work from anywhere, the 3D printing revolution may enable all of us to live much freer lives. The implications of this technology for life and work in the future are certain to be huge.

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Comment by Steve from S21 on 18th Jan 2013
In a blogpost, Nokia today announced that it is releasing design files that will let owners use 3D printers to make their own cases for its Lumia phones. Those using the files will be able to create a custom-designed case for the Lumia 820 handset.

John Kneeland, one of Nokia's community managers added that, in his view, 3D printing was a technology that justified its hype and said it was "the sequel to the Industrial Revolution".

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