Mar 232013

This may sound like a technology beamed down from Star Trek, but it’s real and it’s here

Hypercube

Shapes like this would be difficult, or even impossible, to manufacture by traditional methods

Don’t worry, I’m not going to get too technical here or suggest that you need another printer (yet!)

It’s just that I keep seeing references to 3D printing (otherwise known as “additive manufacturing”) and the more I think about it, the more I think it’s going to revolutionise our world – and it’s here now. Also, this is a good opportunity to introduce something good on the internet that you may not have come across before called “Ted Talks” (and neither had I until Elaine told me about it – thanks, Elaine).

So, what is a 3D printer?

Imagine designing an item (a lampshade, for instance) that you wish then to create in the real world. This design process takes place on a computer using CAD (Computer Aided Design) software. Nothing new so far: CAD has been around for decades. Then refine the software so that it can calculate the exact contours of that design at different points through the design (like slicing it up and measuring the exact specification of the slices).

3D Printer

A 2012 model 3D printer from http://www.3ders.org

Next, imagine a printer that doesn’t deposit ink on paper but deposits a layer (in plastic, metal, or even paper) onto a flat surface. So, the contours of the first layer that is deposited are determined by the specification of the first “slice” in the design stage above. Then the next layer is deposited, with some lamination or melding process taking place that fixes the two layers together. Then the specification of the next slice is read by the printer and deposited as a layer and so on until an entire 3D “printout” is created.

This sounds really bizarre at first and then it makes sense. Amazingly, this process has been around for two or three decades, but it’s only now that it’s starting to make an impact in the real world. Here are some ways that we’re going to feel the impact:

  • You could print out spare parts for machinery as and when they are needed rather than holding an expensive inventory of different parts. This will increase efficiency and reduce costs.
  • Since an almost infinite number of variations of items can be printed by the same printer, industry may find that it can produce products without the enormously expensive, time-consuming, and restricting stage of tooling-up for production of a specific design. This is going to revolutionise manufacturing and employment. It will also remove “barriers to entry” to many industries so that manufacturing may become far more competitive.
  • There will be far less movement of goods around the world as it will be the digital “definition” of an item that will travel from manufacturer to user (via the internet) and only the materials for the printer will need to be physically moved around. Since the materials are common to many products, transport of materials will be more efficient than transport of finished products.
  • The creation of new products will be greatly enhanced by 3D printing’s ability to quickly produce physical prototypes, whose design can then be re-defined and printed again, and so on.
  • Think of the home and replacing spare parts for domestic appliances – vacuum cleaners, fridges, and so on.
  • The uses in the medical field extend far beyond medical equipment. People can be scanned and the resulting data used to manufacture perfectly-fitting implants and prosthetics.

At this point I’m going leave it to people better qualified than me to explain all this. I’m going to introduce you to something you may not have encountered before – Ted Talks. These are free, short, lectures available on the internet on an amazing array of subjects.

Sonic Screwdriver

Dr Who’s Sonic Screwdriver – coming soon to a printer near you?

Here’s a link to a very accessible 15 minute talk – Lisa Harouni: A Primer on 3D Printing

Even if you are not specifically interested in this topic, do have a look at Ted Talks. You can view them directly online or download them onto your iPad or desktop computer to watch later. Ted Talks are definitely one of the really good things about the internet.

And as far as 3D printing is concerned, I wouldn’t be at all surprised to discover that we could soon print our own sonic screwdrivers!

© 2011-2014 David Leonard
Computer Support in London
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