Thursday, February 07, 2008

It's a printer Jim, but not as we know it

It's a printer Jim, but not as we know it
So far, the digital age has been all about information. This is fine if you like that sort of thing - chatting, blogging and texting, etc - but what if you're someone who likes to actually create things, i.e. solid objects? Until recently, you could design them on a computer using 3D software, but they would remain virtual until you built them in a workshop.

Now there's an alternative: desktop machines that allow you to press 'print' and out comes your object in its full 3D glory. It's early days yet for these 3D printers: you can print a cup or a working hinge, for example, but not a working pen. However, it's clear that we're now witnessing a moment in history as significant as when photography changed from black and white to colour. Well, actually, it will probably be much bigger than that.

This 3D technology is currently used by engineers in the aerospace and automobile industries. Formula 1 car designers, for instance, want to constantly modify and replace parts. This technology allows them to design and test components virtually and then press print when they're happy with their designs. These printers are also used by medics to print implants that are digitally tailor-made for patients. The technology is even being used in the arts. For example, some jewellery is now designed on computers to suit the size and tastes of the customer and is then printed off.

The extraordinary thing about this technology is that it turns all the values of mass production on their head. Would we get used to going round to other people's homes for dinner and finding exactly the same knives and forks on the table as we have? But what would happen if you could digitally craft your own cutlery and print it off? Time will tell.

There are now many different types of 3D printing technology and a huge range of materials that can be machine sintered, laser cut, welded, UV cured or just glued. Very importantly, these machines are affordable, so designers and craft cooperatives can now compete in terms of price and precision with big business. Thus this technology doesn't threaten local craftspeople. On the contrary, it supports them at the expense of factories and mass production.

Printing in 3D is revolutionary in another sense, too, because as soon as we can make a machine that can make itself, the means of production will be available to everyone. There are already several groups working on this replicator idea, such as Adrian Bowyer's RepRap project at the University of Bath ( His vision is to transform the manufacturing capacity of developing countries by making a 3D printer that can not only print useful objects, such as pumps, but also has the ability to print itself.

Some people say that such revolutionary technology will cause a complete upheaval in the economic and manufacturing landscape of the world. What ever happens, I hope that, for once, we engineers and scientists, who are so often the architects of change, engage not just in the economic impact of 3D printing, but also in the massive social, cultural and political changes it will undoubtedly bring to life on this planet.

Dr. Mark Miodownik, Materials Scientist, Kings College London