3D printing portends the second industrial revolution

Developments in printing technology have facilitated a transformation in manufacturing, placing affordable 3D printing within the grasp of anyone with an interest

By Samuel Gibbs  /  The Guardian

Sun, Dec 15, 2013 - Page 9

Manufacturing is undergoing a shift as 3D printing reaches the business world and can produce anything from guns and cars to metal, or even food.

Some key recent developments have furthered the “second industrial revolution,” making 3D printing more useful, expanding its possibilities way beyond simple plastic trinkets and putting it within the grasp of anyone with an interest.

Contrary to common perception, 3D printing using metal has been possible for some time, but the price has limited its availability to industry rather than hobbyists.

One of the techniques, direct metal laser sintering, fuses metal powder into a solid part by melting it with a powerful focused laser beam. It is an expensive industrial 3D printing process often used to make prototype metal parts for the aerospace industry, but was recently used to produce a metal gun capable of firing 50 shots.

Now an affordable, open-source metal 3D printer costing less than US$1,500 in parts is in the works at Michigan Technological University. The printer, which has successfully printed steel objects, including sprockets, uses a gas-metal arc welder to lay down thin layers of steel which can be built up into complex geometric objects.

The project, led by Joshua Pearce, is still in the prototype stage, but rapid progress is expected now that the details of the machine have been publicly released as open-source to the 3D printing community.

“Within a month, somebody will make one that’s better than ours, I guarantee it,” Pearce said.

One of the more disturbing proof-of-concept developments of 3D printing has been the rise of 3D printed guns like the Liberator plastic handgun.

Now, Britain’s Home Office has updated the rules pertaining to the 1968 Firearms Act, which already bans the weapons themselves, to prohibit the manufacture, sale, purchase and possession of complete guns or components unless licensed.

“There is no evidence that they are in widespread circulation, but the coalition government has reviewed existing firearms legislation and made it absolutely clear that it is an offense to own or manufacture a 3D printed gun without a license,” British Minister for Crime Prevention Norman Baker said to Reuters.

Now, 3D printers can make almost anything, including themselves. The RepRap project is “humanity’s first general-purpose self-replicating manufacturing machine,” which can print the components needed to build a fully fledged 3D printer.

The initial printing machine can be made from commonly available components, building a basic machine capable of printing the more complex parts needed to build the full 3D printer.

A few bespoke components, mainly the sensors and chips required to make the printer work, still need to be bought separately, but the goal is to produce an open design that can replicate itself at low cost.

Producing objects is just one of the possibilities opened up by 3D printing. NASA is exploring options for producing food using a 3D printer.

A US$125,000 grant has been issued to Texas-based Systems and Materials Research to develop a 3D printer design capable of creating “nutritious and flavorful” food for astronauts.

The printers will combine powders to produce food that has the structure and texture of normal food — including smell — using “digital recipes,” sounding like something straight out of Star Trek.

A pizza was chosen as one of the project’s first goals, demonstrating the printer’s ability to mix nutrients, flavors and textures.

No longer restricted to the Internet or custom shops in the US, 3D printers are already available on the British market in stores like Maplin Electronics.

Similar to IKEA furniture, 3D printers like the GBP700 Velleman K8200 come flat-packed and require construction before they can be used, with 1kg of the plastic printing material costing £30 (US$48).

Assembly takes about an hour or two, while printing something the size of a smartphone case takes approximately 30 minutes, putting 3D printing within the grasp of many more people.

Now that more affordable 3D printers are making their way into homes, the next important step in the second industrial revolution is the creation of content.

These scanners are traditionally expensive, but projects like the Rubicon 3D scanner are attempting to change that with kits costing about £200 or less, using a combination of bespoke parts and common computer components.

The Rubicon 3D uses an off-the-shelf webcam coupled to a 3D-printed turntable and two lasers to scan almost any small object, producing high-resolution 3D models ready for printing or manipulation on a computer.

The 3D printing revolution is not limited to do-it-at-home hobbyists. Asda, among other retailers, has begun offering 3D printing and scanning services in-store.

Shoppers can walk into the 3D scanning booth in Asda’s store in York and replicate just about anything bigger than a shoe, including people and pets.

The object is scanned within minutes in-store. The model is then sent to a specialist 3D printing company, which produces a ceramic print in up to 6 million different colors at various sizes for as little as £40 within a few days, shipping it back to the store, ready to pick up with next week’s shopping.