3D printers are already being used to create art sculptures, replace appliance parts and fit dentures, but the new technology could soon have a far more profound impact on our lives.
Experts say that in the not-too-distant future we will be able to print out copies of almost everything around us: our phones, our food, our homes and even our body parts.
What is 3D printing?
For the uninitiated 3D printing, also known as additive manufacturing, involves using a computer-generated model to make three dimensional objects.
An owner of a 3D printer, which now cost as little as $900 in Australia, can download a design from the internet and print out an object in whichever shape they desire.
The vice president of leading 3D printer manufacturer 3D Systems Asia Pacific, Scott Marriott, said people are already downloading and printing their own replacement parts for household items such as fridges and washing machines.
“Items that are traditionally lost or broken can be downloaded and printed out without going into a store,” he said.
The dental business is one industry adopting the new technology, using it to customise teeth and dentures to better suit a patient.
We spoke to a some of the people involved in Australia’s 3D printing industry and they gave us a few ideas of what could be printed out in the coming years:
A 3D-printed phone case. (objective3d.com.au)
Today people can use 3D printers to realise their own designs such as iPhone covers but it won’t be long before an entire phone will be printable, according to Chris Peters, the founder of website 3D Printers Australia.
“Technology is being developed that can print multiple materials in one print, such as a printed circuit board,” he said.
“So at the end of the day you could print a finished mobile phone.”
The same technology could be applied to build numerous other electronic devices, including MP3 Players, GPS systems, digital watches and cameras.
A 3D chocolate printer developed by the University of Exeter.
Printers could one day sit alongside microwaves as an essential feature of any kitchen, with some firms already selling devices that can be used to ice cakes and make burritos.
Like an ink printer, the device uses cartridges which contain different ingredients that are then layered on top of each other and cooked to your liking.
Printing meals will reduce the waste associated with food packaging and also give users more control by allowing them to regulate the ingredients, fat content and number of calories.
Homes could be built in a matter of hours. (ContourCrafting)
Scientists at the University of Southern California are working on a printer that could be used to build homes.
“Using this process, a single house or a colony of houses, each with possibly a different design, may be automatically constructed in a single run, embedded in each house all the conduits for electrical, plumbing and air-conditioning,” a statement on the university’s website said.
“There’s also a machine that prints concrete structures.”
A combination of these technologies could help create rapidly-built affordable housing. Of course this could also have a downside ? the replacement of builders and other tradesmen with machines.
Donating organs could be a thing of the past. (Getty Images)
Perhaps the most exciting additive manufacturing breakthroughs are being made in medicine, where 3D printers have been used to make parts of the human body.
“People are printing organic cell structures and reprinting things such as an ear and internal organs,” Mr Peters said.
Printers are also being developed that use stem cells and human tissue to produce body parts for transplant. An obvious plus is eliminating the chance that a person’s body will reject the organ as it can be made with parts from their own body.
Parents get an unprecedented look at their child. (Tensi no Katachi)
A Japanese firm has already begun using 3D printing technology to produce life size models of developing foetuses.
Tokyo’s Hiro-o Ladies clinic teamed up with 3D printing company Fasotec to offer the world-first “Tensi no Katachi” or “Face of an Angel” service which costs up to $1200.
A Fasotec spokesman said three expecting mothers were the first to try the innovative service that launched on July 30.
“They said it felt great to see how their babies looked before birth and to be able to actually hold the inside of their own body,” Tomohiro Kinoshita said.
The CyberQuad was invented in WA. (Cyber Technology)
Western Australian firm Cyber Technology already produces an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), or drone, manufactured in part with 3D printing technology.
The construction of the CyberQuad is actually made easier with 3D printing because it reduces the possibility of any inaccuracies in its design.
A gun assembled using 3D-printed parts. (Wired)
3D printing also poses some serious problems for law enforcement. Recently 3D printing designs for high-powered weapons including an AR-15 assault rifle have appeared on the internet.
Late last month a man from the US state of Wisconsin announced on online forums that he had successfully printed parts of a 0.22 caliber AR-15 rifle and assembled it into a complete functional gun.
If the technology reaches the point at which complete guns can be printed easily, it could make Australia’s efforts to keep illegal guns out of the country much more difficult.
What are the limits of 3D printing?
The future of 3D printing could be limited by legislation, which will be an issue for the entire 3D printing industry, Director of 3D Printing Systems Australia Bruce Jackson said.
“Let’s say you print a part for your dishwasher and it floods. Who do you blame? Do you blame the 3D printing firm who sold you the printer? Yourself for not doing the part properly? Or the manufacturer?,” he said.
Another legal issue is the protection of intellectual property, with a 3D printer capable of allowing users to subvert patents and copyrights.
Author: Martin Zavan, Approving Editor: Henri Paget