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Is 3D Printing the Next Big Step?

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It is the stuff of the most grandiose science fiction; being able to tap the buttons of a futuristic console and have a 3D object materialise in front of you.

For many years the idea of 3D printing, or ‘additive manufacturing’ to give it a slightly more technical name, seemed destined to remain in the heads of dreamers for a long time yet.

But, as with the internet and mobile phones, the relentless forward marching of technology means that this very occurrence may soon be commonplace not only in offices and warehouses, but also in our homes as well.

But is 3D printing really going to change our lives as much as its proponents claim?

But first, let’s see how these fascinating machines work…

The 3D Printing Process
3D printing works by placing layers of fine powder that sets into a hard plaster –like substance on top of one another to create striking 3D representations of objects. This layering method is much less material intensive than boring the structure out of a solid block of material, but there are several other key advantages.

Firstly, because 3D printers print from a computer, changes can be made to the computer model rather than having to retool the entire machine.

Secondly, as the technology progresses, it is hoped that 3D printers will be able to create objects made from numerous different materials. This would allow people, in theory, to use these printers to print out tools, mechanical components and commercial products.

Some examples of the practical applications of this kind of technology are:

  • A Japanese firm called Fasotec plans to offer people 3D replicas of their unborn foetuses (perhaps a little creepy, but hey, I’m not judging)
  • Architects can use the technology to construct detailed replica models with very little effort
  • Historians and archaeologists can create replicas of ancient objects in order to study their structure without having to touch them

How Far Along is 3D Printing Technology?
While the technology relating to 3D printing has come on in leaps and bounds in just a few short years, we are still a long way from all having one of these machines in our living rooms.

It is possible to buy a 3D printer for domestic use; the running costs at the present time are way out of the reach of your average Joe.  But for an analogous comparison one needs only to look back to the photocopier, which spread from the high street to our homes extremely quickly, so there is definitely scope for the price to begin coming down in the next decade or so.

But it also brings to the surface an interesting issue; that of copyright and intellectual property. Is it possible that 3D printers would mean that the manufacturing industry undergoes a similar hammering that the film and music industry have undergone in the last decade.

If it were possible, would you use a 3D printer to print out a new control for your TV rather than buying one from the shop? What would you print?

Elise Lévêqueis a freelance French translator who left her native Paris to move to London for, amongst other things, the love of a good Geordie. Known for her love of shopping and her penchant for outlandish parties, Elise likes to occasionally to gather her thoughts together in blogs about technology and the media with a range of partners, including Tintern Experten.

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