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Business News/ Companies / Check the fine print
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Check the fine print

3D printing technology is here. It can beam you a blimp or, one day, even the 'Titanic'. For the moment, you can hit 'Print' for a number of simpler objects

Aditya Dev Sood, CEO of Center for Knowledge Societies, says they have used a 3D printer to tinker with everyday products like name tags and jewellery. Photo: Priyanka Parashar/MintPremium
Aditya Dev Sood, CEO of Center for Knowledge Societies, says they have used a 3D printer to tinker with everyday products like name tags and jewellery. Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint

If you hurry, you may get one. An Australian company is selling the world’s first affordable chocolate printer. The limited edition printer lets you create chocolate in any shape you want in under 10 minutes. Think your dog looks cute? Print candy exactly like poochie (Australian $99, or around 5,500; .Researchers at Harvard University in the US have been able to print a tiny patch of beating heart cells using a 3D printer and a protein gel. On the dark side, sophisticated card readers are being printed directly. When placed on an ATM they send card information to the scammer every time a card is swiped.

From the ordinary to the deadly, 3D printing technology is reshaping business, medicine, crime and just about everything else around. You can bet that 3D printing technology will keep analysts like Gartner, Inc. and McKinsey and Co. busy through 2014 with a slew of forecasts on how it is influencing manufacturing.

But what about right here, right now? Is there anyone doing stuff with 3D printers?

Varun Singh, founder and chief technology officer of ScaleArc
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Varun Singh, founder and chief technology officer of ScaleArc
Anool Mahidharia imported the Ultimaker2. Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint

Varun Singh, founder and chief technology officer of ScaleArc, a database software company in the US, and former host of a technology show on a television channel in India, uses 3D printers to get around a problem that has been hounding his hobby of flying remote-controlled aircraft. His planes crash, and simple replacement components have to be ordered from the manufacturer in Hong Kong. “The parts cost a dollar or two, but shipping adds up to a substantial amount," says Singh, who is now based in Santa Clara, US. “And then," he adds, “there are delays in getting the parts because shipping takes time." His solution? Create technical drawings of the spares and print them at a neighbourhood print workshop.

Singh’s use of 3D printers tells us a little of where manufacturing is headed. In the future, automobile manufacturers, for example, needn’t source a large inventory of spares from locations like China and ship them to workshops across the world. In fact, auto manufacturers use sophisticated supply chain technology, predictive analytics and manufacturing efficiencies to keep costs down. With 3D printing technology, much of this could be trashed.

You need a replacement for the carburettor of your ancient single-seater Brooklands Aston Martin? Just download the .OBJ or .STL file (among the more popular file formats used by 3D printers) for the component and print it off at the nearest 3D printer. You could download computer drawings from a portal for practically anything (naturally, the drawings would have some form of Digital Rights Management to back them) and print the objects.

Mahidharia’s modest use of a 3D printer opens the doors to an even more interesting future of manufacturing. 3D printers allow complete customization and make it possible to have small product runs (even a single unit) based on demand. This means designers and entrepreneurs don’t have to wait for large orders before they create tools and templates to begin production. The time taken from prototype to market can be shrunk by weeks, even months. Terms such as “economies of scale" and “mass production" could become history.

In fact, Mahidharia is working on small production runs. He has a virtual, online DIY outfit called Wyolum, a Maker Space, a community centre with tools that allows an online generation of tinkerers to create physical things instead of just digital stuff, that uses 3D printers to quickly prototype projects. With a community of 3D printing enthusiasts exploring the possibilities of using this technology, Maker Spaces such as Wyolum can quickly print replacement parts for everyday items which would otherwise be discarded for want of that one small missing piece. Mahidharia is currently working on building one of the first not-for-profit Maker Spaces in India—Maker’s Asylum. Bangalore-based Cycloid System has donated a printer, while Mahidharia has put his own Ultimaker2 at the disposal of the community.

3D printing enthusiasts are a growing community. The journey for most begins with RepRap, a revolutionary open-source 3D printing project which has helped strengthen the Marker culture (a technology-based DIY subculture that emphasizes innovation using technology). RepRap, a desktop 3D printer, lets you download code for a self-replicating kit—and behold, you have a printer that prints other printers!

At New Delhi’s Center for Knowledge Societies (CKS), which consults around technology and user behaviour, a Maker Lab started coming up this January. At the centre of the lab is a 3D printer which, says Namrata Mehta, director of innovation at CKS, “allows early adopters, engineers, designers and entrepreneurs to experiment with the technology and helps in the exchange of ideas and knowledge". A network of individuals and institutions interested in using 3D printing comes together at the lab every first Tuesday of a month. “So far, we’ve done fun stuff," says Aditya Dev Sood, founder and CEO of CKS. “We’ve tinkered with everyday products like name tags, shot glasses and jewellery. It has helped us understand the limits of the technology."

But of course, it may be too early to start understanding the limits of the technology—when it has barely opened the doors to the future.

Arun Katiyar is a content and communication consultant with a focus on technology companies. He is a published author with HarperCollins.

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Published: 08 Apr 2014, 09:41 PM IST
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