|- Technology -
3D PRINTING - SCIENCE FICTION IN OUR BACKYARD
The wheel of my dishwasher tray has been broken for weeks and will probably remain a pain in the backside for a long time: until I miraculously find a replacement in a garage sale, order a spare part that will cost as much as if it were made of pure gold or buy a new dishwasher altogether... All of that, infuriatingly, just because of a ridiculously simple little bit of plastic.
If only I could make one at home using a printer that would add layer upon layer of material to output the exact shape I needed. Sounds a bit space-agey, you say? Actually, not at all.
Additive manufacturing (aka 3D printing) is becoming as mainstream as using a home ink-jet device to make birthday invitations. In fact, with about 80,000 3D printers of all sizes sold in the United States since 2007, research firm Wohlers Associates Inc. says it's the fastest growing industry in the US at the moment, and for very good reasons.
First of all, this three-decade old technology is coming down in price rapidly, so you can get yourself a home 3D printer for as little as $350 US dollars. 3D Printing Systems, an Australian company, sells its Up Mini model for $1,280 NZ. The ABS plastic used in this particular machine is the same as used by Lego (or your dishwasher tray wheels, by the way). The material itself costs 6-8c / gram.
To give you an idea, that would bring down the price of your kids Lego from $1.33/pce to 48c. A replacement dishwasher tray wheel: 6g, so 36c to print at home or $4.88 to buy online (plus I'd have to buy the whole set of 8 of course, which comes to $46 total with the freight).
Think you wouldn't be able to handle the software to design your own 3D objects? Dale, from 3D Printing Solutions, recommends Tinkercard, a free to try online 3D design interface that was developed with kids in mind, so they can design and make their own toys. Dale's company also offer a free eBook to help you choose the right 3D printer and explain the technology involved.
If design is not your thing anyway, have a look at Thingiverse, where people who have developed 3D objects are sharing their files, ready to print. Back in September, the site counted 30,000 objects, with new ones being added every few minutes by a rapidly expanding community. I went in, typed 'dishwasher wheel' and hey presto, the replacement I was looking for was there, ready to be uploaded then printed -free. A search on 'Lego' returned 206 results. How about those small things that cost a lot of money? Like a car kit for your phone? How about clamps that fit any table, drinking bottles or a pair of glasses?... In the bigger range, how about an amazing guitar or a 1 kilowatt wind turbine that uses a 3D-printable generator and only requires magnets and wire to complete? Two of those could easily power your home.
Then again, how about a .45 Magnum? Yes, plastic guns do work, although maybe only once, but who cares when they can be made again and again at very low cost and, ah yes, easily taken through customs? Now that's a whole different can of worms to open...
This naturally brings us to the latest application of 3D printing by the US army, who has recently sent 'rapid prototyping labs' to Afghanistan in order to create and modify tools and weapons in the battlefield. Each lab is built out of a standard shipping container, which can easily be helicoptered to any location. These labs are able to quickly iron out any equipment issue as well as develop new ones as the need arise, cutting down the whole engineering and production process from a couple of months (at least) to mere hours.
But killing efficiently, toy making or appliance repair are not the only things made easier by 3D printing. In fact, surgeons are already using such tools to print not only bones that fit perfectly but also, more recently, arteries. Research is advancing fast on live organ printing. Science fiction? Not quite. Eleven years ago, surgeon Anthony Atala successfully transplanted the first engineered bladder. Nowadays he's working on a 3D printer that uses human cells to output transplantable kidneys or heart valves. Equipment that scans and prints directly onto the patient is currently being tested.
The resolution on these machines is getting so great that we are now starting to print molecules.
In research and education, 3D printers are becoming the go-to tool, enabling scientists and students to access more and better tools at very low costs. In fact, the RepRap, a popular 3D printer, costs less than $800 (NZ) and can replicate itself for even less than that.
According to Lisa Harouni, co-founder of Digital Forming, 3D printing is already revolutionising the manufacturing world by not only enabling the production of objects that would be impossible to make through any other method but also because it kicks down the whole scale economy edifice.
How many times have you looked at a broken tool or appliance and knew you could have repaired it if you'd just had a bit of plastic in exactly that shape?... In fact, the real wonder of additive manufacturing is that every automotive repair, engineering company or contractor is not already equipped with a 3D printer, allowing them to get spare parts at the cost of material only -and even customise them.
In fact, with the technology being so cheap and accessible nowadays, what I really find hard to believe is that there are only 2 companies in Hawkes Bay that have acquired a 3D printer, and only one of them, the groundbreaking Axia uses it commercially. On their display table one finds beautiful bottles, adjustable spanners, jawbones, a dog's foot and another two dozen of objects that manage to be intriguing, elegant and revolutionary... And yes, they said they could sort out my dishwasher wheel!