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3D printing

It’s the greatest development in printing since Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press in 1450. Three-dimensional printers have arrived and they can make copies of almost anything. 3D printing uses a process called additive manufacturing where an object is created by adding material layer-by-layer until it is fully formed.

Conventional printers fire streams of ink onto paper. In contrast, 3D “printers” use lasers to heat liquid or powdered material which is sprayed or squeezed onto a base over and over again and allowed to fuse together. The print material (“ink”) used in 3D printers varies and includes metals, plastics, nylons, acrylics, ceramics, wood pulp and even chocolate. 

The first step in 3D printing is to create a virtual blueprint of the object you want to print using Computer-Aided Design (CAD) software. The software analyses your design and then divides your object into cross-sections to enable the printer to build it by laying down successive layers. This can take several hours or days depending on the size and complexity of the object.

3D printing is changing the way people think about “making” things that once required industrial machines. Traditional subtractive manufacturing trims and shapes raw material to make objects, but this creates substantial waste. Additive manufacturing, on the other hand, precisely builds objects by adding raw material layer by layer so there is no waste.

In theory, every home and every business now has the ability to become a customised manufacturing plant. All you need is a 3D printer, CAD software and an Internet connection and you can design and assemble almost anything, no matter how complicated. At a household level, people have “manufactured” plates, toys, jewellery, shoes and clothing using a 3D printer.

More broadly, 3D printing has the potential to transform several industries. The main sectors to benefit to date are health, education, manufacturing and construction. In healthcare, for example, 3D printing has been used to print organ tissue from a patient’s own cells. It has also been used to create hearing aids, leg braces and even a titanium jaw

NASA is testing 3D printers that will enable Mars-bound astronauts to create a sustainable Martian colony on the Red Planet. The makers of the James Bond Skyfall movie turned to 3D printing to create a scale model of an Aston Martin and then burnt it for entertainment. And Boeing has started using 3D printed parts for its planes, including its luxurious Dreamliner aircraft

As with all new technology, 3D printing can have undesirable applications. It has already been used to manufacture illegal items such as weapons and to fabricate counterfeit products. An American woman was recently charged with producing counterfeit US greenbacks. This case showed how easy it is to produce bogus currency using modern technology. 

One of the most high-profile criminal applications of 3D printing occurred in Sydney in 2013. A gang of Romanian criminals “3D manufactured” ATM skimming devices and then targeted ATMs across Sydney, stealing around $100,000. Alarmingly, each skimming device was manufactured for a specific model of ATM so it would fit perfectly, making detection near impossible. 

Clearly, 3D printing has a dark side. When people can replicate any object with ease – like guns, drugs and house keys – you just know that some will do the wrong thing, which is why 3D printing is a double-edged sword. Its capabilities are mind blowing, producing things that defy logic. Let’s just hope the good overshadows the bad and 3D printing makes life better not worse. 

Paul J. Thomas

Posted Monday, October 27, 2014    View Comments 0 Comments    Make a Comment Make a comment  

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