3D printers: Shape of things to come

3D printers like this �950 Cube may one day be a familiar sight around the home
3D printers like this �950 Cube may one day be a familiar sight around the home
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YOU’VE doubtless read about the wonders of 3D printing and the possibilities it presents for bringing to life hitherto inanimate objects. But can you possibly produce a fully formed object from a device notorious for not even being able to churn through a sheaf of A4 without a paper jam?

Actually, the principle is disarmingly simple, and by the end of this decade 3D units will be commonplace in offices and schools. The affordable 3D printer is some way off, but the technology has already developed to the point where technicians familiar with computer-aided design can turn out detailed models and even prosthetic body parts without leaving their desks.

Here’s how it happens: instead of simply etching an image on to a single sheet of paper, film or cloth, 3D printers build up your work in layers, each new one laid down in a different shape and rendered from a plastic filament, melted to suit. So it’s perfectly feasible to turn out, for instance, an Airfix-like model aeroplane without assembling the parts or getting glue on your fingers.

But you can’t just throw a photo of a Spitfire at a 3D printer and tell it to get on with it: you have to feed it every possible geometrical permutation if it’s to look the way you intended. In the future there will be software that does the maths for you, but for now it remains a highly scientific process.

Nevertheless, you can already buy consumer-level 3D printers for under £1,000 – and though they are far from mainstream, you can sense the possibilities for practical uses around the home. Broken the cover of your laptop or DVD player? Don’t spend futile hours with a tube of superglue – just print yourself a new one.

You can try your hand at a primitive form of 3D printing now, with a £99, hand-held “printing pen” from Maplin. It looks like a glue gun: a solid stick of plastic goes in the back and comes out the front as a fibre strand you manipulate as if using a brush. It’s just a toy but a good one. Meanwhile, in the US, Staples is opening a network of 3D printing bureaux for small businesses and consumers – and it may not be long before familiar UK print shops follow suit.

All of which development may still sound like a story by Arthur C Clarke – but consider this: it’s little more than a generation since we said the same about word processing.