3D printing has been around for a few decades but it is only in recent years that 3D printing has hit mainstream media. But what is 3D printing and why is it so revolutionary?

3D printing has been around for a few decades but it is only in recent years that 3D printing has hit mainstream media. But what is 3D printing and why is it so revolutionary?

Basically, in a broad sense, 3D printing is the process that creates physical objects from a virtual model. This is usually done by depositing or fusing layers of material one on top of the other. From virtual or computer files you could print everything; from the mug you drink your coffee out of, the pizza you share with your best friends or even a functional human heart.

The 3D printing revolution has already begun and will continue to grow over the next decades. This is mainly because it is a tool which empowers companies and makers to significantly reduce their costs.

The skill set needed and the time it takes to bring new products to market can be drastically lower than using traditional routes. Certain industries have already successfully made use of 3D printing and drastically reduced their costs while increasing the reach of their innovations. But how is this affecting the person at home?

We have recently seen a lot of media exposure with statements like 3D printing is the next industrial revolution and that it will change our daily lives beyond recognition. This is true, I am sure of it, but it will take a bit more time to become a reality than was originally portrayed. As always, progress takes time and effort.

The truth is that for the time being 3D printing already has huge advantages, but there are still shortcomings in the technology which need to be overcome before this can become truly mainstream.

Think about the first computers being behemoths taking forever to load a screen and freezing up periodically. Look at what we have just a few years later. The same will happen in 3D printing.

Some of the hurdles have already started to be overcome or are at least being worked on vigorously. In fact, there has also been some local success in this area with a local start-up company, Thought3D, from the University’s Incubator, Takeoff, launching a product, Magigoo, which solves one of the biggest problems in the industry, providing increased reliability and safety, lowering the learning curve and the skill required to 3D print. This is done by fixing the prints firmly in place while printing but also releasing the prints easily once the print has been completed.

We will have to hold on to our seats and see the next steps within this industry as they develop and start to see them integrated more and more into our daily lives.

Did you know…

• This March the first 3D printed replica of a heart was used to plan heart surgery on a nine-month-old baby.

• 3D printing is actually used in quite a lot of movies to produce props since they are easier and faster to make than traditional methods allow.

• Some 3D printers can use recycled materials, meaning that they offer the possibility of manufacturing with no waste whatsoever.

• The international space station (ISS) has a 3D printer on board to replace broken parts when a quick change needs to take place.

Sound bites

• 3D printed phone covers: Similar to paper printers, 3D printers need a source file to print from. Since it’s 3D, a dedicated programme has to be used much like work processors and so on for 2D works. Nokia were the first phone company to actually release the 3D source file for the covers of their phones. They did this for their Lumia 820 model. This gave designers and creators the freedom to customise and remodel their phone exteriors to suit a much larger variety of tastes besides the limited stock one finds ready made in retail shops. Moreover, this move opened up a whole new world for people to share their designs and ideas. With newer phones Nokia have updated the cover design base models but this has also opened the 3D printing world to other phones, with people designing their own covers as they like.

• 3D printing the human body: Organs are very complicated structures with lots of moving parts which may be seemingly impossible to replicate. However, on the less difficult side, 3D printing is already moving into the more structural side, with hip joints and damaged bones being custom made to suit a patient’s particular dimensions. In 2014 alone, this growing industry amounted to $537 million and it’s still in its embryonic phase. Moving on to tissue and other more complicated parts of the human body, there is already a lot of work on printing the more rudimentary parts of the body, such as ear replacement and things of that nature. However, we are still some time away from the printing of tailor-made major organs for now.

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