Devangshu Datta: A future in three dimensions

Last Updated: Thu, Nov 15, 2012 19:40 hrs

The latest Bond movie, Skyfall, includes the obligatory car chases and crashes. It stars the classic 1963 Aston Martin DB5, which has been the preferred 007 vahana since Goldfinger (1964). The DB5 is near-priceless, fetching recent auction prices in excess of £1 million. Skyfall “cheated”, by using one-third scale replicas for the stunt scenes.

What is interesting is that 3D printing technology was used to knock up scale models. Additive manufacturing, via 3D printing, is now one of the more popular methods of making things. It’s quick, it’s versatile and it’s rapidly becoming cheaper. Printers range from do-it-yourself (DIY) devices that cost less than $500, to large, high-end devices. Material can be dirt cheap. Many hobbyists salvage waste plastic from melted-down junk.

Much of the technology is open-source, and 3D printers may soon become ubiquitous. A 3D printer may be as simple as a modified ink-jet printer. In fact, the early prototypes designed in MIT in the 1990s were exactly that. Instead of ink, the nozzle extruded heated plastic, which was layered onto a 2D design to build a 3D object. The higher the resolution, the more the precision.

Some more expensive printers work directly with metals, using heated metal wires. High-end laser printer designs can meld metals and polymers. Industrial designers have experimented with adding robot arms for greater control and finer detailing.

The printer is attached to a computer, which provides the designs and controls movement, extrusion thickness and resolution. Using standard CAD/CAM programs, a complex object is virtually sliced into cross-sections. These cross-sections can then be printed separately and glued together to make the complete object.

The Aston Martin models for example, were produced in 54 parts (mudguards, doors, roof, bonnet, etc) and assembled onto a steel frame before being painted. The Hobbit is also reportedly using 3D printing to create some of the more fantastic bits of Middle Earth scenery, flora and fauna.

Apart from special effects in entertainment, common applications also occur in jewellery design, footwear, automobiles, architecture, aerospace, naval design, dentistry, medicine, etc, and the uses are growing. For example, music buffs have started printing turntables to play old records. Recently, some students from the University of Washington used plastic scavenged from milk bottles to print a boat that came second in a canoe race.

One key advantage to 3D printing is flexibility and rapid prototyping. An object can be produced from design literally within a few minutes. One disadvantage is that the 3D technique is less easily scaled than normal manufacturing. To make a big object requires large printers and to produce in quantity, it is usually cheaper to use normal methods. However, innovative use of salvaged materials has reduced costs and as usage catches on, big printers are also becoming cheaper.

It’s possible to use a 3D printer to make most of the parts for a 3D printer. There are several open-source businesses offering expertise. Most of the moving parts of a DIY printer can be printed out and the frames are standard-sized angle irons. Printer design files can be downloaded, printed and the entire device assembled within a day or so, if you have access to a 3D printer. Upgrades and repairs are also possible by printing out improved versions of parts. There are thousands of open-source object designs available and more being produced everyday. It is all very reminiscent of the early days of open-source computing, when enthusiastic amateurs started churning out programs.

The US military has gotten into the act, which guarantees big bucks in research. Reportedly, the US army is interested in developing a cheap printer, which can be used to generate spares at the frontline. It’s researching possibilities at the Space and Missile Defence Command in Alabama.

Another cutting-edge area is medical research. The University of Vienna is experimenting with laser-guided printing to create living tissue to exact micro-specification. Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania have managed to print blood vessels out of sugar. The printer uses the sugar to create a pipe network, which is then coated with living cells. The cells use the sugar to replicate, turning the structure into living tissue. Printing has also been used to create lightweight prosthetics and walkers for disabled children.

It’s early days for 3D printing, despite the basic technology being 15-20 years old. Penetration is expected to rise exponentially over the next few years. Given PC and smartphone penetration, the proliferation of devices has the potential to be a disruptive game-changer, just as the PC itself was.

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