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Online robots, 3D printers showcased at CeBIT fair

INCREASED ACCESSIBILITY:An official for 3D printer company Formlabs said technology, previously ‘covered by patents,’ is becoming available as patents expire


Two people attending CeBIT, the world’s biggest high-tech fair, watch a video using Oculus Rift virtual reality data glasses in Hanover, Germany, on Tuesday.

Photo: EPA

Need a copy of your wedding ring, a new name tag for the dog, or a spare part for the washing machine? Just print it, is the message at the CeBIT IT fair in Germany.

A host of companies are showcasing new tech marvels, from Web-connected robots to 3D printers, that can turn homes, schools and offices into design labs and mini factories.

They say the merging of the virtual and physical worlds will unleash a wave of creativity, democratize manufacturing and lead people to print, rather than buy, their Christmas presents.

One of the most eye-catching projects at CeBIT in Hanover is “Robochop,” in which heavy-duty industrial robots carve foam cubes into furniture or sculptures, based on designs people upload online.

The 2,000 most inspiring designs are to be mailed free of charge to their creators’ homes, anywhere in the world, said design duo Clemens Weisshaar and Reed Kram, the brains behind Robochop.

“These robots are a mini factory that is connected not to the owner of the factory, but to everyone else,” Weisshaar said. “That’s what’s going to completely change over the next years. Software will be written that allows users to take over machinery without having the engineering knowledge that you would normally need if you just bought a robot.”

On a more modest scale, the 3D printer has for years been a vital tool for designers, engineers, architects and researchers, who typically use it to create models and prototypes. However, here too, breakneck advances in precision, resolution, speed and available materials are rapidly changing the industry.

3D printing has made headlines with eye-popping uses, including downloadable designs for handguns, a prosthetic beak for a Costa Rican toucan and the “printing” of entire homes with a mix of concrete and recycled rubble by a Chinese company.

The technology “has in fact been around for more than 25 years, but it has been covered by patents,” Sara Bonomi of US 3D printer maker Formlabs Inc said. “The industry is really developing so much now because these patents are expiring and the technology is becoming accessible for everyone.”

Formlabs makes high-resolution desktop 3D printers that have been used to design everything from jewelry to dentures, and from medical devices to the model spaceships seen in Hollywood blockbuster Interstellar.

While most 3D printers create models “from the bottom up,” using resin from a nozzle to add layer upon layer, Formlabs employs lasers that solidify a resin to create objects with ultra-crisp detail, in a process sometimes called “optical fabrication.”

As 3D printing advances, becomes more affordable and enters more family homes, it will change the way people live, Bonomi said.

“Definitely in the future we will be able to customize rings and shoes, and then you can just print them at home,” she said, cautioning that this might lead some do-it-yourselfers to create counterfeits of branded products.

“There will be more questions about copyright and what you can actually make,” she said.

So, will the 3D printing revolution add new mountains of plastic to a planet already choking in garbage?

Not necessarily, said Vitezslav Musilek of Czech company be3D, who said his company’s DeeGreen printers use a thermoplastic that is 80 percent corn starch, biodegradable and free of toxic fumes when used.

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