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Manufacturing enters a new dimension [World Today, The]
[November 21, 2013]

Manufacturing enters a new dimension [World Today, The]


(World Today, The Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) The 3D printer is threatening to change the world in ways we can barely imagine, Roger Highfield reports Visitors to the Science Museum this autumn will catch a glimpse of a future in which engineers can make lighter and more efficient parts for aircraftand space probes, where patients will one day be able to mint their own drugs and doctors print replacement body organs.

The idea of 3D printing is not new: it has been available commercially for around three decades. Back in the 1990s, I speculated about the potential of 'printing' Christmas presents. In 2004, I became aware of the potential of what was then called 'rapid prototyping' when I visited the Renault F1 team works in Oxfordshire.

What has changed in recent years is that 3D printers are becoming cheaper, smarter, better and more ubiquitous. When in May a self-proclaimed crypto-anarchist in Texas made a handgun using a £5,000 3D printer, the international press cottoned on that something was changing in the world of manufacturing.


One object in particular seems to sum up the potential of this technology: a mechanical hand designed and printed by Richard Van As, a South African carpenter, following a circular saw accident in which he lost four fingers. Van As was able to collaborate with a British prop-maker over a distance of 10,000 miles to create the 'Robohand' and has made the plans freely available online so that anyone can use them. At the time of writing, these have been downloaded more than 30,000 times.

The first industrial revolution reshaped society and boosted the incomes of the poor as manual labour was displaced by machine-based manufacturing. Factories produced items in their thousands, profiting from vast economies of scale. Now, thanks to the 3D printing revolution, bespoke craftsmanship is making a comeback.

The formal label given to this craftis 'additive manufacturing' - the object is built up layer by layer in a 3D printer. The traditional approach to manufacturing is 'subtractive' and relies on milling, grinding and cutting to remove material, wasting much of it in the process.

Additive manufacturing is an organic blend of craftand hi-tech that is the opposite of the production line assembly methods pioneered by Henry Ford. It heralds a new world of consumer choice as almost anything can be customized and then printed - even the 3D printer itself.

One of the milestones in the field came when Adrian Bowyer, who was then at the University of Bath, devised RepRap, which stands for 'replicating rapid-prototyper', which works like a printer but, rather than squirting ink on to paper, lays down thin layers of molten biodegradable plastic which solidify to make objects.

This machine was the first to copy all of its own 3D-printed parts, which could then be assembled into a new RepRap machine. Now similar machines are available in kit form, marking a dramatic rise in the use of this technology analogous to when the mainframe computer gave way to the desktop PC.

Nimble start-up companies are now entering the market and being absorbed into industrial giants. All the while, the software and other ingredients of 3D printers are getting cheaper, while hackers adapt and improve them. Hobbyists now play with them. Communal 3D printing facilities for local people are springing up in the United States.

These 3D printers come in various kinds. Some spray 'inks', such as liquid polymers that solidify when exposed to ultra violet light. Others use layers of sticky paper, or extrude filaments of molten plastic. There are those that use powdered metal or plastic that is made solid with a laser or an electron beam. As the technology mutates and evolves, the quality of the objects they can make gets better.

Joshua Pearce, associate professor at Michigan Technological University, says: '3D printing is ready for showtime.' He has carried out an economic analysis of 3D printing in an average American household, published recently in the journal Mechatronics.

His team selected 20 relatively inexpensive items for their study: mobile phone accessories, a garlic press, a showerhead, a spoon holder, and the like, and then calculated the cost of making them with 3D printers. The conclusion: it would cost the typical consumer from $312 to $1,944 - depending on brand and quality - to buy those 20 things, compared to $18 to make them in a weekend. If the family made only 20 items a year, Pearce's group calculated that the printers would pay for themselves within a few months to a few years.

When these printers become as common as the microwave, they will have a profound effect on everyday life. DIY will take on a new meaning. Why order parts from a warehouse or visit a shop when entire designs can be stored in virtual computer warehouses, waiting to be printed locally, and on demand? You will be able to make everything from door handles to mobile phones in your garage, or at a neighbourhood 3D print shop. And if you have an actual kitchen garden as well, you can grow the plastic - polylactic acid is made from fermented plant starch, usually corn. You will have a self-replicating 3D printing machine making useful goods from a self-replicating material supply.

'3D printing enables engineers and designers to manufacture things they couldn't make with traditional methods,' says Suzy Antoniw, exhibition leader at the Science Museum.

No country will want to be leftbehind as 3D printing evolves, least of all China, once the global source of low-cost manufacturing and now rapidly moving up the technological ladder.

To make sure that Britain stays at the forefront of this rapidly evolving technology, the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council has set up the Centre for Innovative Manufacturing in Additive Manufacturing at the University of Not- tingham. The aerospace company EADS can print complex geometries rapidly from computer-aided design information, without the need for dies, form tools or moulds.

The company 3T RPD, of Greenham Common, Berkshire, working in partnership with the University of Southampton, created the world's first 3D-printed aircraft, a small drone. It has also printed the titanium lattice of the Queen's Baton for the 2014 Commonwealth Games. The baton will tour all the competing nations and territories before the games.

Bespoke items such as the baton will not just be small scale. At Loughborough University, Richard Buswell is developing a vast, three-storey rig to create buildings by 'concrete printing' elaborate components with far greater complexity than currently possible, opening up almost limitless possibilities for architects.

As a result there has been an explosion of creativity. The Urbee is a hybrid car with a 3D-printed body. Its successor will use additive manufacturing to make both exterior and interior.

Enrico Dini, the Italian inventor, has created a device that uses a magnesiumbased material to bind sand particles together; creating sedimentary stone, a process that normally takes hundreds of years, in a matter of minutes. Dini's machine, known as the D-Shape, can print any feature that will fit into a cube that is 6x6 metres, from artistic staircase to kiosks, benches and statues.

In space, other opportunities beckon. Imagine landing on the Moon or Mars, putting lunar rock dust through a 3D printer and making something useful - like a wrench or a replacement part.

And, taking us a step closer to every Trekkie's dream of a food replicator, Nasa has awarded a contract to a research consultancy in Austin, Texas, to study the feasibility of printing pizzas. The aim is to find ways to satisfy the appetite of astronauts on deep space missions, where the shelf life of ingredients needs to be a few decades rather than a few days.

At this stage the possibilities seem endless. Do I believe the hype? I do - but I am not so sure when the revolution will come.

There was a lag of many years between the first feverish headlines about the personal computer revolution and the arrival of truly useful domestic computers. The same went for the internet, which was billed as transformative in the primitive dial-up era of the 1990s and is only now delivering that promise thanks to broadband, tablets and 4G.

As for the 3D revolution, I am confident that the technology will spread beyond industry and geeks in the 2020s to change the way we do things, and in more fascinating ways than we can possibly imagine.

'You will be able to make everything from door handles to mobile phones in your garage' Left: software engineer Travis Lerol takes aim with a 3D-printed handgun Right: the concrete printing rig at Loughborough University, developed by Richard Buswell A 3D printer in action: building up a toy robot one layer of plastic at a time Roger Highfield, a former editor of New Scientist, is director of external affairs at the Science Museum (c) 2013 Royal Institute of International Affairs

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