3D Printing: What’s All The Fuss About?

3D printing seems to be the new ‘buzz’ word in science. In fact, much of the ground breaking research advancing this new technology is being done right here in Nottingham by the Additive Manufacturing and 3D Printing Research Group.

How does it work?
3D printers break down a 3D model into thousands of horizontal layers. The printer head then builds up the object layer by layer fusing each one together. To make moving parts, the machine simply leaves gaps in the right places in each layer until the object is complete. The process could be compared to making a corkscrew out of a stack of paper, some glue and some scissors. If you cut each piece of paper to the exact shape needed and stacked them on top of each other you would have the correct shape. All you would need to do is stick them together. Materials such as plastic, metal and even chocolate have been used in the printers. The materials are ejected in powder form and fused together using lasers. Alternatively, the material can be melted in the printer nozzle, then cools and solidifies once ejected. This method allows more than one material to be used at once which enables objects like hearing aids, which need metal circuits and a specifically shaped plastic casing, to be made in one process.

One exhibit sure to attract attention is the 3D printed handgun which will make visitors pause for thought.

How much has already been achieved?
The university has funded and contributed to a brand new exhibition at the Science Museum (London) entitled ‘3D: Printing the future’ which consists of over 600 objects made solely from 3D printing. Exhibits range from chess pieces and spanners to intricate music boxes and engines. One exhibit sure to attract attention is the 3D printed handgun which will make visitors pause for thought. The gun emerges from the printer almost ready to fire. Only a small, easy to fit piece of metal is required to complete the mechanism. Many people will be justifiably concerned about this but are the advantages of 3D printing worth this risk of a killing machine being readily available?

How useful is 3D printing?

Mass production is always going to be cheaper and quicker than 3D printing when it comes to making thousands of identical objects. However, 3D printing is incredibly useful for making unique objects which need a very specific shape, some of which cannot be made by regular manufacturing techniques. It also has the advantage of being portable. This means that very precise objects can be designed and manufactured in remote places. The benefits of being able to print a correctly sized prosthetic limb for a child in the middle of Africa or a small mechanical part for a space craft on Mars are obvious. This technology also opens up manufacturing to the masses in the same way the 2D printer made the printing of newspapers and leaflets possible for everyone only a few decades ago.

It will be a long time before we all have a 3D printer in our living rooms.

Is this a science fiction dream?
Scientific predictions are easy to criticise when you look back at the nuclear Hoovers and moon bases predicted in the 60s. However, let’s not forget that Wi-Fi seemed as achievable as time travel only 20 years ago. It will be a long time before we all have a 3D printer in our living rooms but having seen the improvement and declining price of computers during our lifetimes, is it so ridiculous that 3D printers could follow the same trend?

Joanne Blunt

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