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Printing in a new dimension

Printing in a new dimension

3D printing has really gathered pace in the past few years. From once being in the domain of science fiction, the machines are now available on the high street and resulting in more and more uses being devised for them.

So, how does it work?

The 3D printing journey starts with a computer file. A Computer Aided Design (CAD) file is created to tell the printer what pattern to print. The design is sliced by the software into hundreds or thousands of horizontal layers to enable the printer to create it, one layer at a time and from a growing variety of materials including plastics and even edible substances. The object is built up rather than chipping away at a large block, resulting in a more efficient process without waste.

The potential is exciting, here are a few of the most innovative uses that we’ve seen yet.

Commercial design and product development

Product development can now be done for a fraction of the cost, producing prototypes in a matter of hours. Nike works in this way to create multiple, improved prototypes in the space of one day.

Other design-led applications such as architecture have seen a gradual shift from drawings on paper, to CAD models created on a computer and accompanied by models painstakingly built by hand using materials like card and foam. Now a 3D model can be printed to speed and simplify the process.

3D printing in space

When an astronaut needed a wrench, the usual practise was a costly one – to send one up on another craft. Following the development of a 3D printer that works in space, NASA simply emailed a design to the International Space Station - saving a huge amount of time and money.

Medical marvels

From a dog with 3D printed legs to 3D printed medication, the medical industry is one that may be transformed by the technology. Printing a body part to practise on before an operation is becoming increasingly common, and there have already been cases of 3D printed medical implants. For example, replacement vertebrae for a 12 year old boy. Perhaps even more impressively, a tiny splint was created for a baby’s airway to assist breathing; this was designed to grow with the boy over three years, before finally dissolving without a trace as the tissue grows over it.

Food

The Foodini is a 3D printer designed to print food. Currently in its infancy, the device can print complex desserts or foods such as pizza and pasta. It has already prompted ideas about use in the military and for elderly people.

Hershey recently hosted a 3D chocolate printing exhibit using the printer to produce chocolate shapes. They could design much more complex designs than usual, some even had moving parts!

What’s the future for 3D printing?

It’s still early days for the mainstream 3D printer industry but it doesn’t seem like it’ll be long before the machines are widespread and used for a plethora of applications. Driven by open source communities, more and more complex things are being printed in 3D – you can even print a 3D printer with a 3D printer.

(Image is the Arena logo printed as a 3D keyring)


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