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3D printing

noun [uncountable]

a method of creating a three-dimensional object from a digital file by using a device that adds layers of material one after another

3D printer

noun [countable]

'The technosphere – which is currently in love with 3D printing … – was abuzz, earlier this week, with the news that a 3D printer company had seized its leased unit from the home of a man planning to print out a pistol.'

Boston Globe 6th October 2012

'A hi-tech printer supplied by a Derbyshire firm that can produce three-dimensional objects is being used in pioneering surgery that could revolutionise knee operations … A 3D printer supplied … to Charing Cross Hospital has been used to make models of knee joints.'

Derby Telegraph 10th October 2012

Imagine having access to a machine which, at the flick of a switch, could 'print' you a new case for your smartphone, or knock up a vase that matches the colour scheme of your newly decorated living room? This may seem like a fantasy straight from the set of a science-fiction movie, and yet technical advances in what's now known as 3D printing suggest that possibilities such as these could be just around the corner.

many technology experts predict that wide-spread accessibility to 3D printing will be a revolutionary phenomenon

3D printing, also sometimes technically referred to as additive manufacturing, is a process in which physical objects are built layer by layer by a high-tech, computer-controlled device. Once a design of an object is ready to 'print', special software 'slices' the object into thin, horizontal layers. Then a build component, correspondingly dubbed a 3D printer, deposits material layer by layer until the object is finished. The process is similar to the way that inkjet printers lay down colours on a piece of paper to construct an image, but works in three rather than two dimensions. 3D printers can use different materials such as plastic, metal, glass and ceramics, and in a range of different colours.

The potential applications of 3D printing are wide-ranging. Car manufacturers and aerospace companies have been accustomed to the technology for some time, using industrial scale printers to produce parts. Architects and electronics companies are using 3D printing techniques to produce models and prototypes. The technology also has applications in medical science, for example being used to produce bespoke hearing aids and implants, or model leg joints for reconstructive surgery. As these examples illustrate, 3D printing has up to now mainly been confined to larger-scale, commercial applications. However with the first domestic 3D printers beginning to become available, this looks set to change very soon. In September 2012, 3D printer company Makerbot opened a store in New York, thought to be one of the first to sell 3D printers to the general public for use in their homes.

Many technology experts predict that wide-spread accessibility to 3D printing will be a revolutionary phenomenon, a world-changing invention on a par with the Internet, or even personal computers. There are others, however, who fear that the technology will open up some thorny issues. Some manufacturers, for instance, are worried that, in a similar way to the illegal downloading of music and films, people will be able to download designs and create trademarked products at home. More serious still, there are concerns about how 3D printing could be linked to terrorism and organised crime. Even in October 2012, a law student in the US was found to have used a hired 3D printer to plan the printing of a pistol capable of firing a single shot.

Background – 3D printing

The concept of 3D printing has been around since the 1980s, though early 3D printers were large, costly and of very limited use. The first use of the terms 3D printing and 3D printer is often associated with Jim Bredt and Tim Anderson, who in 1995 when graduate students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, modified an inkjet printer to deposit binding solution onto powder rather than ink onto paper. Bredt and Anderson later went on to found 3D printing company Z Corporation.

by Kerry Maxwell, author of Brave New Words

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This article was first published on 27th November 2012.

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a general election … that is called earlier than expected

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