Three-dimensional (3D) printing is promising to change the way we manufacture goods and do business. The technology has been around for a few years but is finding mainstream support in 2013, crucial to its adoption and success.
Fabbers, or personal manufacturing machines—3D printers come under this category—now not only make jewellery and toothbrushes but also football boots, racing car parts and even custom-designed cakes. Three-dimensional printers fabricate complex objects by depositing materials layer by layer. The most common 3D printing process involves a “print head” that allows any material to be extruded or squirted through a nozzle. Others use a laser beam or glue to selectively fuse powdered plastic, metal or ceramic in layers. The process can take several hours to days.
It was only this week that Dutch architect Janjaap Ruijssenaars unveiled designs for the world’s first 3D-printed house using the D-Shape—a brand created by Monolite UK Ltd—printer. During the printing of each section, a “structural ink” is deposited by the printer’s nozzles on sand. The new material thus created converts any type of sand, dust or gravel into a stone state very similar to marble.
Stratasys Inc.’s 3D printing technology has made everything from prototype drone wings to robot exoskeletons for children. This year, at the Paris Fashion Week, it featured two 3D printed ensembles. Last February, an 83-year-old woman became the first person to get a 3D printer-created jaw. And in July 2011, engineers at the University of Southampton emulated the Wright brothers and printed an aircraft.
Industrial-size 3D printers cost up to half-a-million dollars, while low-end personal-scale 3D printers cost less than $1,000. In India, DesignTech Systems, a distributor of Stratasys, launched uPrint, a personal 3D printer, in June 2009. Research by Wohlers Associates Inc., an independent consulting firm, suggests that over 20% of 3D printers’ output are now final products rather than prototypes and the figure is expected to rise to 50% by 2020. Tech visionary Ray Kurzweil has predicted that 3D printers will eventually be able to self-replicate by printing the parts to build other 3D printers.
Scientists hope to be able to print human tissue and organs as well as bones in the near future. Not far-fetched when you consider that US start-up Modern Meadow believes it can make edible artificial raw meat from stem cells and bio-ink using a 3D bio-printer.
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