Thursday, August 6, 2009

From Star Trek to your living room, replicators are nearly here

One of the most exciting and practical applications of computer technology in the 21st century is that of three-dimensional printing.

Almost any shape or design that can be conceptualised then converted into a suitable CAD file is now able to be printed out by the amazing devices that are 3D printers.

Right now, these printers are practical but incredibly expensive, not only to purchase but also to run and, as far as I'm aware, there aren't any third-party 3D printer refill operations around to reduce those costs.

Another drawback of today's 3D printers is that the resulting product is generally formed from a kind of plastic. In many cases this plastic may well be strong and durable enough but all too often, the items being printed really need to be made from someting with different physical, electrical and thermal properties.

In such cases, it's normal to use the printed item as a "plug" used to make casting molds from which the final product will be created. Unfortunately this means extra work, time and expense.

There are a growing number of "bureau" printers appearing on the market however, and some of these effectively allow you to print your 3D item in whatever material you choose.

By simply submitting the CAD file and material specifications, you end up with exactly what you asked for, usually just a few days later. Of course, as is always the case with computers -- what you ask for may not be what you want.

Streamlining this whole process is a new version of 3D printing which actually prints using metal instead of plastic. This system progressively deposits layers of sintered steel that, once the printing process is complete, are fused together with heat to create a solid metal object. This is an important step in the development of 3D printing technology.

Intricate metal assemblies that may previously have taken many hours of machine-time and work by skilled engineers to create, can now be printed out in a few short minutes.

Could it be that the computer is about to replace the blacksmith yet again?

Once we have truly affordable multi-material 3D printing, the "replicator" devices of Star Trek fame may become more fact than fiction.

If you examine just how quickly advancing technology brings down prices, it's not at all unreasonable to expect 3D printers will become as ubiquitous as the home-PC within a decade or so.

Such machines could also change the online shopping experience forever. Instead of consigning factory-made items to the postal service for delivery, your online purchase could consist of little more than a download that was sent to your very own 3D printer. Within minutes of ordering, the item would be spat from your printer -- bright, shiny and ready to use, each and every component having been "printed" to precise specifications and in-situ.

Isn't technology wonderful?

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