Friday, October 11, 2013

3D printing, a new revolutionary tool

I believe that 3d printing will revolutionize our society, much as radio, television, computers and other technology has done in the past. So what is 3d printing?

Normal printing of ink on paper is done in two dimensions, 2d. The flat surface of the paper allows a text to be written or a graphic to be drawn. How could printing be done in three dimensions? The answer is that the print head does not produce ink, but consists of a dispenser of a special kind of plastic and a laser that heats it. The plastic is thermolabile, meaning that when it is heated it polymerizes and fuses into a solid form. The image is built up of 2d layers that form a 3d object. By targeting the laser into the plastic a predetermined solid shape can be produced that is an exact replica of a 3d image stored in the computer. The plasic can be of any color or degree of hardness. The image can be based on a laser scanned item in three dimensions, such as a vase, a kitchen utensil, a gun, a hand, or actually anything. Or it can be based on the imagination or the user or can be an object that has been designed de novo, such as a new industrial product. The scope of 3d printing is so vast and revolutionary that it opens up completely new vistas.

For example, someone scans all the parts of a gun and prints them in 3d, thus producing identical copies of the originals. These can then be put together just as the original gun was, and it has been shown that they can fire bullets, just as the original gun did. Now the police have a problem, how can you trace a gun that is plastic, has no identification marks or numbers (they can be left off) and is undetectable by metal detectors and can be destroyed so completely that it appears that it never existed. How can security agencies defend against perfectly reproduced working guns that are made purely of plastic.

Another example, someone patents a particular device, say a computer accessory. Someone else takes it apart and copies each piece, but changes the design to improve it. He can now produce copies of his device and sell them without breaking the copyright of the original (of course, the device must be all made of plastic, or metal wiring must be added). At present 3d printers cost ca. $1,000 each and they can be used to produce anything. For example, on two occasions I have thrown away perfectly good working fans because the plastic housing had broken and no longer supported the fan itself. With a 3d printer I could have scanned and reproduced new parts or even improved their design. This will lead to much greater innovation and convenience. In the future people will wonder how they managed without 3d printing.


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