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3D printing: from fantasy to reality

Martha Mendoza (via AP/ SMH) | June 4, 2013
Once a science-fiction fantasy, 3D printers are becoming prevalent in creating objects with moving parts.

Wayne Losey of Dynamo DevLabs talks 3D printing.
Wayne Losey of Dynamo DevLabs talks 3D printing. Photo: AP

Invisalign uses 3D printing to make each mouthful of customised, transparent braces. Mackenzies Chocolates uses a 3D printer to pump out chocolate moulds. And earlier this year, Cornell University researchers used a 3D printer, along with injections of a special collagen gel, to create a human-shaped ear.

Once a science-fiction fantasy, three-dimensional printers are popping up everywhere from the desks of home hobbyists to US Air Force drone research centres. The machines, generally the size of a microwave oven and costing anywhere from $400 to more than $500,000, extrude layer upon layer of plastics or other materials, including metal, to create 3D objects with moving parts.


Brook Drum of Printrbot shows of his $US299 portable 3D printer.
Brook Drum of Printrbot shows of his $US299 portable 3D printer. Photo: AP

Users are able to make just about anything they like: iPad stands, guitars, jewellery, even guns. But experts warn this cool innovation could soon turn controversial - because of safety concerns but also the potential for the technology to alter economies that rely on manufacturing.

"We believe that 3D printing is fundamentally changing the manufacturing ecosystem in its entirety - how and where products are made and by whom," said Peter Weijmarshausen, chief executive of New York-based Shapeways, an online company that makes and sells 3D-printed products designed by individuals. Products include a delicate, twig-like egg cup (cost: $US8.10) and a lamp that looks like a nuclear mushroom cloud (cost: $US1388.66).

"We're on the verge of the next industrial revolution, no doubt about it," added Dartmouth College business professor Richard D'Aveni. "In 25 years, entire industries are going to disappear. Countries relying on mass manufacturing are going to find themselves with no revenues and no jobs."

On ground, sea or air, when parts break, new ones can be made on the spot, and even the tools to install them can be made, eliminating the need for staging parts in warehouses around the world, said Jeff DeGrange, vice president of Direct Digital Manufacturing at Stratasys, currently the industry leader in a field of about 50 3D printer companies.

"We're going to see innovation happening at a much higher rate, introduction of products at a much higher rate," said DeGrange. "We live in an on-demand world now, and we'll see production schedules are going to be greatly compressed."

 

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