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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.

Airplane mechanics could print a replacement part on the runway. A dishwasher repairman could make a new gasket in his service truck. A surgeon could print a knee implant custom-designed to fit a patient's body.

But the military, D'Aveni said, is likely to be among the first major users of 3D printers, because of the urgency of warfare.

"Imagine a soldier on a firebase in the mountains of Afghanistan. A squad is attacked by insurgents. The ammunition starts to run out. Is it worth waiting hours and risking the lives of helicopter pilots to drop it near you, or is it worth a more expensive system that can manufacture weapons and ammunition on the spot?" he said.

In the past two years, the US Defence Department has spent more than $US2 million on 3D printers, supplies and upkeep, according to federal contract records. Their uses range from medical research to weapons development. In addition, the Obama administration has launched a $US30 million pilot program that includes researching how to use 3D printing to build weapons parts.

NASA is also wading into this arena, spending $US500,000 in the past two years on 3D printing. Its Lunar Science Institute has published descriptions of how it is exploring the possibility of using the printers to build everything from spacecraft parts while in orbit to a lunar base.

While the US is pursuing the military advantages of 3D printing, it's also dealing with the potential dangers of the technology. On May 9, the US State Department ordered a group to take down online blueprints for a 3D-printable handgun, and legislators are contemplating proposals to restrict posting weapons plans in the future.

Since 2007, when these printers first entered the mainstream marketplace, sales have grown by 7.2 per cent each year, according to IBIS World, a company that tracks the industry. Sales are projected to jump from about $US1.7 billion in 2011 to $US3.7 billion in 2015.

Cliff Waldman, a senior economist at the Manufacturers Alliance for Productivity and Innovation, a group that promotes the role of manufacturing in global economies, said it's still too soon to know exactly what impact this 3D technology could have on more traditional manufacturing. But he doesn't envision it changing the "fundamental shape" of manufacturing, as others suggest.

"I think 3D has the capacity to impact both products and processes," he said. "I am not ready to say that it is completely disruptive, however. It might be in a few narrow industries."

Starting in June, office supply chain Staples plans to be the first major retailer to supply 3D printers with "the Cube", a plug-in device that uses 16 colours and costs $US1299. In September, the smallest and cheapest 3D printer on the market - a printing pen priced from $US50 - is due to start shipping. Similar to a glue gun, the 3Doodler plugs into the wall and is filled with cylinders of plastic that come out of a 270-degree Celsius tip. Once the plastic leaves the pen it cools and hardens.


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