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!

Female face, obviously frustratedWeb browing can be frustrating. Apart from connection problems and slow computers, we can often be thwarted by different kinds of computer problems that crop up on specific websites. These browsing problems are often caused by the particular combination of computer hardware and software, and sometimes caused by human error other than your own.

Stating the obvious, computer hardware and software is very complicated and it changes all the time. Sometimes things are just bound to go wrong when one thing doesn’t talk nicely to another. Something that worked yesterday may not work today simply because (for instance) you have done what you were told by the prompt that nagged you to update your Adobe Flash Player.

Websites that don’t display properly

I recently had a very frustrating experience during an onsite computer session when trying to download a file from Dell. I just could not find the button to initiate the download process. It got so bad that I even checked their help files and wondered whether to ask them for some tech support. The web page kept reassuring me that I had put the file in my “basket” and that I had installed the “download manager” but I just could not find how to start the download. Eventually it dawned on me that the instructions were so straightfoward about telling me to “click the download button” that I wondered if the “download button” was just not being displayed. So I went slowly around the white space of the screen, clicking everywhere. It worked. For some odd reason the button was invisible (probably printing white text on a white background).

In retrospect I should have tried a solution that often works with website problems – use a different browser. It’s just possible that that would have been the quickest solution. For the first half hour of my frustration, though, I assumed that the problem was my own fault of not being able to see something that should have been right in front of me.

Website thats don’t compute

A pencil broken in frustrationNot long ago I was providing some home user support for a client who asked me to help her place an order on a website. Trying to do it on her own, she had been unable to find the “checkout”. Well, when we looked at it together we still couldn’t do it. We gave up in the end. There was just no way that we could follow a path through the website that took us from the stage of “placing the item in the basket” to placing the order. There was some horrible flaw in the design of the website. It wasn’t my client’s fault and it wasn’t mine. We went to Amazon instead.

This brings me to another obvious suggestion. If a website is driving you mad because you seem to be going round in circles then ask someone else to look at it with you. Computer assistance is often as valuable from a family member as a computer support specialist. You may just need someone to confirm that you’re not missing something obvious. My thinking is that if two people looking at it together can’t work it out then it’s a badly designed website rather than a technically-challenged user. It seems to me that a lot of people assume that this sort of problem is “their fault” when, in fact, it’s a badly designed website.

Along similar lines, I rcently tried to buy some copyright-free images online. I’d previously created an account and then I spent ages making my selection of images. When I got to the checkout, however, the website detected that I wasn’t currenlty “signed in” to my account. Instead of giving me the opportunity to sign in at that point it insisted that I either abandon my basket (and then sign in) or create a new account. This is just bad website design. OK, I admit that I have a low frustration threshhold coupled with high expectations of other people’s competence. Nevertheless, my main point still holds: the fault wasn’t mine and there’s no reason why I should criticise myself for incompetence (intolerance, maybe, but not incompetence).

Missing add-ons

Another area of frustration can be that you think you should be looking at a video on a website or some other bit of fancy eye-candy and you just can’t see it. This can be caused by not having an important “add on” installed on your computer that the website is trying to call upon. You’ve probably noticed those irritating nags telling you to update Java and/or Adobe Flash Player. Although this is irritating it’s worth doing as this software is needed to run some of the fancier bits of website pyrotechnics. Also, using out-of-date versions could pose a security threat. So, if you think you should be looking at something fancy and it’s not there it’s worth looking to see if there’s a hint somewhere on the screen telling you that you need to install something before you’ll see the fancy web content. Only do this on websites you trust, though: clicking on links that claim to download add-ons like Java can expose you to risk. See my blog post on download risks for further information.

Printing problems

If you are trying to print a web page and it either won’t print at all or prints very badly (eg with lots of white space and different elements printing on different pages) then it’s worth looking to see if there’s a specific “print” button embedded in the web page (as opposed to starting the printing by using the browser’s print command). This is because the website will then send a version of the page to your printer that is optimised for printing rather than displaying as a web page. And if that doesn’t help, or if there isn’t a special print button, then try a different browser.

Conclusions

1) Not all websites are perfectly written or tested. Having a bad “user experience” could be the website’s inadequacies and not your own. Ask someone else to look at it with you.
2) Try viewing the web page in a different browser. You can have as many browsers installed as you wish. They won’t interfere with each other in the way that antivirus programs do. See my post on browsers for installing more browsers.

© 2011-2017 David Leonard
Computer Support in London
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