A licence to print anything
Call it Industrial Revolution 2.0, call it rapid manufacturing – label it with its stuffy, official moniker of “additive layer manufacture” if you will – but 3D printing is big news.
Devices that transform virtual 3D models into real objects have become a fixture in industrial design and engineering, and the technology is beginning to break into the mainstream. Once 3D printing reaches its full potential, nothing will ever be the same again.
We’ve already reached the stage where a machine can print objects in plastics, ceramics or metals from a design you upload over the web. There are 3D printed components in machines and devices being used today, not to mention decorative art, cars, buildings and even artificial organs printed using similar processes.
We’ve already reached the stage where a machine can print objects in plastics, ceramics or metals
Technologies that already exist in hi-tech facilities or university labs could move into local workshops, building sites and even homes. Along the way, 3D printing might just take a wrecking ball to modern economics, transforming fundamentals such as the supply chain or economies of scale. You can’t get more disruptive than that.
The evolution of 3D printing
3D printing has its roots in industrial rapid prototyping. As engineers in the mid-1980s looked for a faster alternative to conventional prototyping, the idea dawned that you could take a CAD model and transform it into a series of thin, horizontal cross-sections.
Manufacture these cross-sections, layer by layer, by fusing liquids or fine powders, and you could bring your model into real-world existence. How? Well, in the mid-1980s the University of Austin – sponsored by the US military research body, DARPA – developed Selective Laser Sintering (SLS), a process where a laser fused small particles of plastic, metal or ceramic powders into the layers that would make up the 3D shape.
As each layer was formed, high-precision servo motors would lower the bed containing the powder, ready for the next layer to be formed on top. A few years later, S. Scott Crump of Stratasys developed Fused Deposition Modelling (FDM), where layers were formed by thermoplastics, liquified and deposited through a hot extrusion head. The plastics hardened, and the working platform could then be moved downwards to produce the next layer.
Patented in 1992, the first Stratasys printers were intended as tools for design engineers, but it wasn’t long before the technology found wider uses; it can now be found in HP’s 3D printers.
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Pirating the real world
Now, we’re seeing mass commercialisation and consumerisation of these and similar technologies: online 3D printing bureaus, such as i.materialise and Shapeways, are popularising rapid prototyping and manufacturing, allowing anyone to design a 3D model and turn it into a physical object.
Upload your chosen object as a file, pick your material – resins, plastics, glass, stainless steel or gold, to name a few – and wait. Your object will be delivered to your door.
The RepRap is something else. Originating under the leadership of Adrian Bowyer, senior lecturer in mechanical engineering at the University of Bath, it’s a kit-based desktop 3D printer that works using FDM. Made primarily from plastic, the RepRap’s design is open source and, up to a point, self-replicating.