SCI-FI fantasies take on real dimensions with 3D printers
A technology that seems like something out of the pages of speculative fiction is now commercially available, with the options limited by budget and materials _ meaning a coffee cup ... or a gun ... could just be a mouse click away
Just before a premature baby died in their care because his airway collapsed after birth, doctors in the US state of Michigan made a tiny plastic airway splint, inserted it and saved his life.
FRESH PRINTS: What you see is what you print, as this operator demonstrates with the nextgeneration Formlabs 3D printer for home and office, which began shipping in May for 99,250 baht.
Well, actually, they didn't ''make'' the device. They printed it.
There's a new device being added to personal computers and servers around the world these days _ the 3D printer. These take files produced by 3D design software and produce physical objects from computer-aided designs, layer by ultra-thin layer.
Until recently, 3D printing was an expensive, strictly commercial venture. A small but successful franchise chain in the US took in designs and pushed out objects for clients on printers that cost 300,000 baht and up, and took a fairly experienced technician or two to run.
Within a year, however, the printers have become more commercially available. There is a wide range on Amazon and office-supply websites, and a hobbyist (or a doctor) can buy a printer and a supply of plastic for less than US$2,000 (62,000 baht). This is what a PC cost in Thailand during most of the 1990s, so 3D printing is now clearly within the budget of many, here and abroad.
In geekspeak, 3D printing is called ''additive manufacturing''. What that means is you draw a model with 3D software, and feed the file to the printer to get a physical model.
The software has been around for years. And it needn't be as expensive as AutoCAD, a notoriously pirated program that still sells for around $900 for a legal copy. 3D printing has turned into a social media _ a niche part for sure, but where almost everyone uses the free, online Google software SketchUp.
Basically, 3D printers operate in much the same way as paper printers _ except you check the supply of plastic or iron filings instead of ink or toner before clicking the print button.
What can you make? To answer a question with a question, what do you want? But home and office 3D printers on the market today are limited to fairly small objects that can be held in a hand _ a coffee cup, a vase, a case for your RayBan Aviator sunglasses, complete with a geeky pocket clip.
Or a gun. How about a gun? A .38-calibre pistol fits in the hand, right?
ALL THAT’S FIT TO PRINT?: Among the thousands of items already available for 3D printing are a coffee cup, a vase, a case for your RayBan Aviator sunglasses with a pocket clip, and a plastic heart that says ‘mum’. But a better gift for Mother’s Day for Prime Minister Yingluck ‘Poo’ Shinawatra is probably this printed, plastic thunder crab.
Cody Wilson, a self-proclaimed anarchist from Texas, printed a handgun a couple of months ago. He named it the Liberator, and fired rounds with it. He used a rented Stratasys Dimension SST 3D Printer, which costs about 18,000 baht per month to lease.
Or buy, say, an Afinia printer, three spools of plastic filament and shaping tools from Amazon.com tonight, for only $1,599 (49,600 baht).
That will print most of the above, but not everything, probably not the gun, at least not a safe one.
The case of the dying baby in Michigan was documented in the May 23 edition of The New England Journal of Medicine, complete with close-up photos and X-rays. The plastic airway splint will ensure the baby's breathing for three years, after which he should be fine on his own _ and the splint will simply resorb into the body.
In other words, the fate of what you print is determined by the material you are able to use for printing. The printer itself may not care if you use bioresorbable plastic or a really hard, tough plastic good enough to withstand bullet recoil.
But just as cheap traditional paper printers won't give you high-quality output, neither will cheap 3D printers. As with ink jet, laser or any other kind of paper printer, the quality of the output depends on a number of factors _ the document on the computer screen, the ability of the actual printer and the material being fed in, whether paper or metal.
That's right, new-generation direct metal laser sintering 3D printers can spew out solid objects formed from metal powder. So while the plastic gun is a novelty that has got far, far up the noses of concerned authorities including the US State Department, the fact is 3D printing has no serious limits, and will eventually be able to make just about any object from a whole range of materials.
The US State Department ordered Mr Wilson to remove the 3D plans for his Liberator handgun from his website. But by then, thousands of people had downloaded them, and they are available on websites around the world, showing the politicians once again the futility of trying to force the toothpaste back into the tube.
The future of 3D printing, then, is still unknown. In theory, a big enough device could take waste sawdust and print out a wooden house _ and then make much of its furnishings. But that is, indeed, theory.
For now, the place to start is a website such as Thingiverse.com, where plans for thousands of home projects exist. They are ready for printing, but can also be downloaded and edited.
Many of the existing blueprints are in the Google Sketch-Up format, but most are in the older Autodesk format known as STL, which allows more detail. Free viewing and printing software for STL files is available at stlviewer.sourceforge.net while the Google SketchUp Viewer can be downloaded from www.sketchup.com.
The unofficial but impressive Thai headquarters for 3D printing is www.reprapthai.com, which will print small objects for you for around 300 to 600 baht.
''Reprap'' by the way refers to a system where 3D printers can print 3D printers. Does that make you feel a little futuristic? Or a little creepy?
A Singapore start-up called Pirate3D received seed money to produce ''the world's most affordable 3D printer'', and began a Kickstarter campaign on May 30 to raise development and marketing cash. A video of the prototype printer at work is on YouTube, just search for Pirate 3D.
Like any technology worth mentioning, 3D printing will scare a few people, governments and newspaper editors for its ''dark side'' such as the all-plastic guns that cannot be discovered by metal detectors at government offices and airports. But technology that can only do good things for good people will never exist.
Futurist Christopher Mims has already written of a day ''when every kitchen has a 3D printer, and the Earth's 12 billion people feed themselves customised, nutritionally appropriate meals synthesised one layer at a time, from cartridges of powder and oils they buy at the corner grocery store''.
Far-fetched? Mechanical engineer Anjan Contractor has recently received a $125,000 grant from Nasa to create a prototype 3D food printer.
3D printing is probably the most significant development since mobile phones. Smartphones and tablets and 4G messaging are fine, but they are only an evolution of existing consumer products. And if the smartphone can help to change the technology revolution _ which it can _ then 3D printing can change the industrial revolution and the assembly line.