Wonderful World of 3D Printing

Visitors who have booked a session at a novel photo booth in Japan are experiencing perhaps the closest yet possible to Star Trek style teleportation. Each is scanned, then recreated in miniature using a 3D colour printer.

            Of course, no one actually moves between places, and the model people are not magically alive. Yet the process is just one example of the rapidly developing and expanding field of 3D printing. While some other applications are also akin to novelties, like chocolate printing, uses include rapidly making complex prototypes, and even creating aeroplane parts.

            In Hong Kong, the Housing Department is embracing 3D printing, to create models from 3D architectural design software. Their printer uses a technique akin to inkjet printing, with models built from layers of powder plus coloured glue. Printouts include single flats complete with plumbing, cross sections of apartment buildings, and a new housing development. These help in presenting design concepts to the public. One 3D prototype model showed how an excavation site would appear, helping the contractor with fine-tuning the work sequence.

             3D printing involves creating solid objects layer by layer. Lasers have played a key part in its development, and the first 3D printers employed an ultraviolet laser beam that was aimed at a liquid photopolymer. The photopolymer solidified in places it was hit by the beam, which moved on to gradually build the printout. Other techniques have also emerged, such as with print heads extruding molten plastic or even chocolate that quickly hardens, and lasers that fuse powdered material together.

            At first, 3D printing was chiefly used for “rapid prototyping”, as part of computer aided design process. Though rapid by comparison with using tools to create intricate models, printing each prototype could take several hours.

            Now, there’s a shift towards making actual products. These may include unique fashion designs, such as for shoes and clothing made from plastic and nylon, as well as jewellery. Customised dental crowns can also be made with 3D printers, perhaps far closer to your dentist than has been the case till now.

            3D printing enables creation of highly intricate designs that might be difficult or impossible to make in other ways. Metal bone implants can be fashioned with internal structures akin to the lattices of real bone – so they are relatively lightweight, and better integrate into patients’ bodies. Rounded channels are readily built within metal structures, leading to a British manufacturer producing a high-performance gearbox for racing cars, and F-15 fighters featuring printed parts including air ducts.

            A new jet engine – the LEAP – that is being developed by a joint venture between GE Aviation of the US and Snecma of France will include several printed parts, partly as making them requires less metal than with conventional techniques, and they can be lighter.

            3D printing enables creation of spare parts, which can be a boon in remote locations – and not just on earth. NASA is fostering SpiderFab additive manufacturing techniques, through which spacecraft will deploy 3D printing for making structures that form large antennae supporting a deep space communications network, as well as far larger solar panels than can be launched using rockets. And once spacecraft reach other celestial bodies, 3D printing may again play a key role in space exploration. NASA has funded a study showing that it is possible to make simple tools and spare parts by fashioning them, layer by layer, from simulated moon rock that was powdered, then melted with a laser.

            But 3D printing is not just for manufacturers and space explorers. Stay-at-home earthlings can also try creating their very own objects, perhaps through online services, or maybe even with their own printers. Shapeways, Sculpteo and 3dprintuk are among companies that can transform your designs into 3D objects, perhaps as gifts, or as items you can offer for sale. You can also choose from existing designs, such as for smartphone cases to which you can add a personal touch.

            While if you want to try 3D printing yourself, desktop printers are becoming more affordable, and more capable. They include a new model from MakerBot with a Star Trek-inspired name: Replicator 2. Roughly the size of a microwave oven, this has a window through which you can watch as plastic objects are created layer by layer. Unlike Star Trek, you can’t ask it to make your dinner, but you could create a plate you can eat from as you ponder the myriad possibilities for printing.

Martin Williams