3D printers: Super models

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They can make detailed replicas of anything from your unborn child to an active volcano in moments. So, asks Tim Walker, how long will it be before there's a 3D printer on every desk?

The 3D Systems ProJet HD 3000 may look a lot like a hi-tech refrigerator, but it's actually a new way to make babies. Or architectural models. Or working mechanical parts. At the moment it's cultivating a set of prototype engagement rings. Behind its glass window, a metal tray is moving back and forth, and with each movement being bombarded by 400 tiny jets spraying liquid acrylic resin. The tray also moves upwards by tiny increments, painstakingly building the delicate models layer by layer. When, eventually, the rings inside emerge – having been cured by ultraviolet light – they will be covered with wax, which keeps their fragile structures supported during their construction. An hour or so in an oven will melt away the wax to leave perfectly finished, robust sample rings. The 3D Systems ProJet HD 3000 is one of the latest generation of printers, able to reproduce a three-dimensional computer design as precisely as a regular desktop printer can reproduce a computer document – if a little more slowly.

Modelling babies in the womb is just one recently developed application of 3D printing. Using data from ultrasound, CT and MRI scans converted into a CAD (computer-aided design) file, the printer can give expectant parents a perfect life-size model of their child-to-be. Meanwhile, many architectural firms use these printers to construct scale models of their designs, rather than waste precious man-hours with superglue and balsa wood. 3D prints were used as models and sets for the recent stop-motion animation film Coraline. And many of the printers can also achieve sufficient detail to produce moving parts, hence the little working car chassis (with cogs, wheels and axles) that's resting on top of the ProJet – the chassis was printed not as separate component parts, but as a single item.

Ten years ago, 3D printers were half-million pound monsters, with complex requirements such as nitrogen gas and their own specialist electrical power source. So large and messy were they that they had to be housed in their own separate facilities. Today's £50,000 Pro Jet, by contrast, whirrs quietly in the corner of a room at Inition, a technology company in East London dealing in all things three dimensional, from television broadcasts to "augmented reality" software. Soon, this kind of printing will become a standard part of the prototyping process for all product design, from architecture to mobile phones. "In five years' time," says Robin Thomas, who runs Inition's 3D printing operation, Thinglab, "the dream of all the 3D printer manufacturers is to have one on every desktop in the world".

That vision came a little closer to reality this month, when Z Corporation – one of that handful of major 3D printer manufacturers – released their latest printer, the Z Printer 350. At around £16,000, it's the most affordable model on the market; simple to use, and able to produce objects up to 8in x 10in x 8in at a rate of 0.8 inches per hour vertically – speedy by the standards of the competition. Thinglab houses a ZCorp Z Printer 650, the 350's high-class cousin. Unlike the ProJet, it uses a powder material to build objects. When the print is complete, a hose sucks away the excess powder as if uncovering an archaeological find. That powder can be reused for the next print so the Z Printer produces no waste material.

"The material is also cheaper," says Thomas, holding two palm-sized printed cubes, one printed by each machine. "The cube from the ZCorp printer is not as clear as the one from the ProJet printer," he explains, "but it's quicker to print and costs around £11 or £12. The ProJet resin cube would cost more like £50. The Z Corp printers are for product designers to communicate an idea, to give people a new MP3 player or mobile phone or architectural model to pass around at a presentation; they're also the only 3D printers that print in colour.

"The ProJet printers, on the other hand, are for functional, durable models and fine working parts. They can print in ultra-high definition, which is about 47 layers per millimetre – about the thickness of a hair – so the detail and resolution of its models is incredible."

The speed of a print depends on the height of the object, thus a sheet of complex chain-mail, constructed as a single piece, may take around two or three hours in Thinglab's Pro Jet. A print of a human head, meanwhile, would take more like 36 hours. One of the company's latest clients is indeed printing miniature copies of his own head, but in the Z Corp machine. "He's seen a business opportunity in scanning people's faces and making small models of them," Thomas explains. "There's also now a market for undertakers making headstones by scanning the face of a dead body once it's in the coffin. Then they can convert the scanned image into a 3D model to put on the headstone. Apparently it's big in Europe."

Among Thinglab's other customers are an artist who wanted to reconstruct a plumber's pipe fitting for a sculpture; a university geology department which wanted to study models of landscapes devastated by earthquake activity; an Australian science museum, for whom the company printed a model of a prehistoric lungfish; and someone who'd broken a porcelain sculpture they'd planned to give a friend for Christmas – Thinglab's specialists scanned the damaged figurine and printed a restored version.

The CAD files that the printers turn into models can be created either from scratch with a number of different software programmes – including Google's free "Google SketchUp" – or scanned from life using a laser or light scanner, then translated into digital format. Thus an implausibly tanned bust of John Cleese adorns the Thinglab studio. "Cleese is fascinated by 3D technology," says Thomas, "so we scanned and printed his head for [his television series] Batteries Not Included. We also had David Hockney in here last week and scanned him to make a model. He was speechless – there's talk of making a 3D documentary about his life."

Exeter Advanced Technologies, or X-AT, is a commercial research and development operation attched to Exeter University's school of engineering, mathematics and physical sciences. Mike Felstead, X-AT manager, says his unit has been using 3D printers for about a decade, for rapid prototyping of product designs in various fields. "It's all very well producing computer screenshots," Felstead explains, "but the clients want an item in the hand to see what the final product looks like. For example, we printed a bonnet-pin called the AeroCatch for a company called Specialty Fasteners; it was for rally cars and specialised sports cars. The print demonstrated that the system would perform, before they went and made all the costly precision tools to produce the real thing. We even did physical testing on it to check that it would take the loads that were required."

As the mass market for 3D printing evolves, the process will also spread further into specialist areas. According to both Felstead and Thomas, the motorsport and aerospace industries are particularly interested in 3D printing with metal, which would allow them to reproduce highly specialised vehicle components quickly and precisely.

"There will also be mass commercial customisation of the technology," says Felstead. "When, a couple of years ago, clip-on covers for mobile phones were popular, there was a thought that you might have booths, like passport photo booths, where you could go and play around with some simple software, design a new cover for your mobile phone, come back half an hour later and find it printed out. Some of our students are working on a project sponsored by Cadbury, which uses the principles of 3D printing to design chocolate – there's potential to design bespoke pieces of chocolate to give like flowers."

For now, perhaps the most useful application for 3D printing (more useful, if that's possible, than a printer that makes chocolate) is that of the "Reprap", a printer developed by mechanical engineers at the University of Bath, which produces replicas of itself. This, surely, is the most logical way to get a 3D printer to your desktop – and to everybody else's.

Reproduction line: Printers' progress

1953

The first high-speed printer was developed by Remington Rand for use with the company's Univac computer. It was approximately the size of a Mini Cooper.



1971

Xerox created the first laser printer, known as Ears, which developed into a commercial laser printer, the Xerox 9700 Electronic Printing System, released in 1977. It was approximately the size of a Volvo Estate (below).



1976

However, IBM's Volvo-saloon-sized IBM 3800 laser printer beat Xerox to market, able to print at a rate of more than 100 impressions per minute.



1988

Hewlett-Packard released the first desktop inkjet printer, the DeskJet. It was similar in size to a two-volume Oxford English Dictionary.



1992

Hewlett-Packard released the LaserJet 4, the first laser printer with 600x600 dots-per-inch resolution. It was comparable in shape and size to an early microwave.



1993

3D printing in its current form was originally developed at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). The Institute's "Alpha Machine" is about the size of a G-Wiz car.

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