You can call it “rapid prototyping” or call it Version 2.0 of the Industrial Revolution or you can call it, as certain members of the UK government are alleged to have done “an existential threat to our entire way of life” but even its official name of “additive layer manufacture” is widely ignored.
In fact, you, I and everyone else tends to just call it 3D printing since that is pretty much the most descriptive way to talk about what is fast becoming a major new influence on the world we see around us. What it does is just what it says on the box – it takes virtual 3D models of objects and transforms them into the real objects themselves in much the same way as a standard printer takes a virtual version of a printed document, from something like Microsoft Word, and turns it into a real document.
We have reached the point where a fairly simple machine can print objects in plastics, ceramics or metals from a design you find out there on the web. There are 3D printed parts in different machines the world over although the general run-of-the-mill printed objects at home tend to be the simple things such as coat-hooks or even simple footwear. In the more extreme cases though there are even labs working on using 3D printing to create entire organs for transplant into human beings. Although the only successful example we have seen to date appears to be a section of blood vessel and a urethra this is potentially a game-changer for transplant medicine.
While the most high-tech versions of 3D printers can set you back thousands of pounds, the most common public printer these days is usually based on the Open Design device known as RepRap (the name coming from its ability to REProduce itself RAPidly by printing its own parts) which can be built for as little as £350 and is commercially sold in versions such as the rather clunky MakerBot for around £1,500.
Before writing this article, we had the pleasure of talking to builders of a version of RepRap and MakerBot at the recent Bang Goes The Theory roadshow in Manchester. Their own rather exciting version used solid perspex frame pieces for the device rather than the metal and plastic supports of most RepRap machines and the rather strange wooden frame used by MakerBot – a very considerable improvement in our opinion. We were, however, quite surprised to find that little effort had been put into printing the frame rather than using cut perspex. Even spools that had been added to carry the plastic wire used to print the objects had been carefully cut from plywood by the builder rather than printed by the machine itself!
Most impressively, during our conversation the machine we were looking at was being used to print parts to replace worn and broken parts from walking robots in another exhibition stand some distance away – machines making parts for quite different machines, designed on the spot because the parts were needed. If that does not make the technocrats of capitalist economies wonder what their future holds then nothing will.
- MakerBot Raises $10 Million in Funding! (And Sends Stephen Colbert’s Head Into Space) (singularityhub.com)
- 3D Printing comes to life in MSP (tech.mn)
- Arduino & RepRap – Creating Wealth by Giving it Away (timbuktuchronicles.blogspot.com)
- LeBigRep, a Giant 3D Printer (makezine.com)
- Buildatron Systems to Present a Revolutionary 3D Printer, the Buildatron 1, at the World Maker Faire September 17 and 18th at New York Hall of Science in New York City (prweb.com)
- Le BigRep, A Largescale Open Source 3D Printer (laughingsquid.com)
- A Factory in Every Home (shareable.net)
- An Interview With Bre Pettis, Founder of MakerBot Industries (hackaday.com)
- Disruptive Technology: Home 3D Printing (makezine.com)
- Disruptive Technology: Home 3D Printing (mt-soft.com.ar)