IMAGINE booting up your laptop, pressing a few buttons and printing your own lunch. It may sound like something out of Star Trek, but it could become reality sooner than you think.
The world of 3D printing is readying itself to dominate both commercial and domestic market sectors after years of being confined to creating prototype models for designers. Despite having been around for about 20 years, it’s only now that technological advances, falling prices and the range of materials available have made 3D printing a reality for the mass-market.
3D printers create objects by spraying a fine plastic powder one layer at a time, which can be incredibly time-consuming. But it creates highly detailed, incredibly resilient three-dimensional objects for a variety of purposes.
“3D printing is a technology accelerating to mainstream adoption,” says Pete Basiliere, research director at Gartner. “It is a technology of great interest to the media, with demonstrations on science shows, gadget websites and in other areas. From descriptions of exciting current uses in medical, manufacturing and other industries to futuristic ideas — such as using 3D printers on asteroids and the moon to create parts for spacecraft and lunar bases — the hype leads many people to think the technology is some years away, when it is available now and is affordable to most organisations.”
News that the first gun to be created by a 3D printer had been manufactured in the US last week sparked an outcry from campaigners, who believe that the ready availability of the products threaten public safety.
However, while the cost of a 3D printer is currently out of the reach of most consumers – the MakerBot Replicator 2 claims to be the best desktop 3D printer in the market and costs around £1,500 – it is believed that costs will continue to fall and the devices could become commonplace in homes across the country within 20 years.
The technology’s potential for creating bespoke products can be glimpsed in the world’s first wearable 3D-printed dress, designed by Michael Schmidt and Francis Bitoni, and unveiled by Dita Von Teese earlier this year.
However, 3D printing also has the potential to turn the manufacturing industry on its head, as consumers will be able to create goods at home that they would traditionally have had to buy. One major benefit would be the level of customisation available – printed objects can be tailored to the consumer’s specifications by pressing a few buttons. This emphasis on the needs of the consumer could start the greatest change since the industrial revolution, democratising the production marketplace, Basiliere believes.
“We see 3D printing as a tool for empowerment, already enabling life-changing parts and products to be built in struggling countries, helping rebuild crisis-hit areas and leading to the democratisation of manufacturing,” he says.
Scotland is at the forefront of this technical revolution, with numerous institutions using the technology in cutting-edge ways.
Stirling-based CA Models, a product development company, uses 3D printing to create designs and models for a variety of clients, including Formula 1 race teams requiring parts for tests in wind tunnels. Glasgow’s MakLab offers a 3D printing workshop allowing part-time inventors’ design aficionados’ imaginations to run wild by mocking up small plastic architectural models, industrial components, tool parts and ornaments on their sophisticated system.
But it is not just inanimate objects that can be created by 3D printers. At Glasgow University, scientists have been exploring its biomedical applications by initiating chemical reactions, while in February, Heriot-Watt University printed 3D layers of stem cells to form human tissue.
Dr Will Shu and his colleagues at Heriot-Watt’s Biomedical Microengineering group are the first to print delicate embryonic cell cultures that can adapt to become almost any cell in the body.
Dr Shu says: “To the best of our knowledge, this is the first time that these cells have been 3D printed. In the longer term, we envisage the technology being further developed to create viable 3D organs for medical implantation from a patient’s own cells, eliminating the need for organ donation, immune suppression and the problem of transplant rejection.”
Carrying relatively low cost, waste and health risks, 3D printing stands to revolutionise medical research fields, and could eventually be used to produce entire limbs or organs for transplants. It could also be used in the future to produce nutritious food free from the expense of packaging, farming and with 100 per cent sustainability.
But is it too good to be true? One of the issues likely to become increasingly prominent is that of copyright control – if consumers are able to download files and customise them before printing the physical objects, who retains ownership?
Concerns were also raised after this week’s printing of the world’s first fireable 3D gun. Featuring a metal pin as the firing piece, the pin appears to be too small to set off metal detectors, leading to fears weapons could be carried through aircraft security. Manufacturer Defense Distributed admitted on Thursday that 100,000 copies of the design to create the gun had been downloaded since its launch and has been warned by the US government that it could be breaching arms-control regulations if it did not withdraw the design.
But as Beer points out, 3D guns, albeit non-firing models, have been created for some time. “There were 3D printed guns probably ten years ago, but it wasn’t so widely publicised,” he says. “People have seized upon it a little bit, but you can create a lethal weapon in far easier ways than on a 3D printer.”
Strange things that can be 3D printed…
Your unborn baby
Japanese company Fasotec is offering the chance for expectant parents to print a 3D model of their unborn baby modelled on CT or MRI scans. A snip at just ¥100,000, or about £820, the model is created using a two-resin process called Bio-Texture, which is also used to make medical models. Miniature versions and keyrings are also available, should you feel so inclined.
An iPhone shoe
This week, US designer Alan Nguyen showcased an intricate bright blue shoe he had designed and printed using a 3D printer, complete with a section for holding an iPhone. While the model has limited practical use, Nguyen claims to have designed the shoe to test copyright principles. “We are like DJs,” he said, “because they take other people’s things and make something completely new.”
A family portrait
The Omote 3-D is a 3D printing booth combining a 3D scanner with a 3D printer. Customers pay their money, step inside and choose a pose, before being fully scanned by the machine. After about 15 minutes, a tiny full-colour model of the group pops out. A favourite in the Harajuku region of Japan, it’s unlikely to catch on over here until the price is lowered, with the smallest models starting from around £171 to produce.
Earlier this year, New York company 3D Systems unveiled a Les Paul stars and stripes design guitar created by the magical process of 3D printing. Although the strings, neck, jacks and various knobs were created through other methods, the breakthrough is being hailed as a new age in musical instrument production.
Burlesque beauty Dita Von Teese modelled the world’s first dress created by a 3D printer back in March. Designed by Michael Schmidt and Francis Bitoni, the dress consists of 17 different pieces and 3,000 joints, allowing it to flow and move as regular fabric would. 13,0000 Swarovski crystals upped the glamour factor.