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Growing the future
OMAIR AHMAD  27th Dec 2014

FoldaRap, a RepRap Project 3D printer.

couple of years ago, my wife came back from a trip to her office headquarters in the U.S. Since she was working with Microsoft at that point, one of the attendant pleasures of the trip was observing the awesome new technologies that Microsoft was working on. So she was the first person who could say she had seen a 3D printer at work. Just describing it working sounded so cool, that I did a bit of research about what it was. I had heard the term a while back, or maybe read it in The Economist or some such publication, but had not paid much attention to it. At the end of it, though, I thought how interesting could it be? I was wrong, largely because I just had not exercised my imagination.

Basically 3D printers are somewhat like a common printer, in that a printer prints a number of dots on a piece of paper. The old dot matrix printers used to punch little rods against a ribbon which would impress the paper with colour, inkjet printers spray ink, and LaserJet printers use electricity to imprint ink on the paper. Dot matrix printers had a very low resolution, something like 60 to a 100 dots per inch (dpi), while inkjet printers do some hundreds of dots per inch, and LaserJet can do something like 2,500 dpi inch at their highest resolution. In other words you are laying colour down. But imagine if you could put so much colour that you could pile it up on the paper? In a sense this is what 3D printers do. In 1986 Charles Hull patented "stereolithography", a means to do exactly that.

A laser would focus on the liquid polymer, solidifying a single layer in the design, and then work down another layer, solidifying that, and on through a series of multiple iterations until the solidified polymer had built the design.

Hull designed a way that a machine could work with photopolymer (light sensitive plastic). A laser would focus on the liquid polymer, solidifying a single layer in the design, and then work down another layer, solidifying that, and on through a series of multiple iterations until the solidified polymer had built the design. While this sounds like a painfully slow and boring way of doing things, it opened up a whole new way of thinking. The process is now generally called "additive manufacturing", in which one thin layer is added to another to build things up, just like a person would build a house, a layer of brick at a time. Since then, different methods of 3D printing have come up: some involve the printing, layer upon layer, of treated polymers, others involve extruding plastic heated to a certain temperature and binding it. In fact many 3D printers are now commercially available, costing about a lakh onward (though much cheaper ones cost a few thousand rupees but are of limited functionality), with their plastic cartridges, using material like that found in Lego blocks, that you can use in your own drawing room.

ore interesting — as well as far more expensive 3D printers — can extrude metals, concrete and even chocolate. The Imperial Machine & Tool Company has used this technology to build lighter metal nuts for artillery pieces. They used additive manufacturing to build metal nuts that had small gaps, like a honeycomb, so that they remained strong, but were much lighter. This allowed the engineers designing the M777 Howitzer to make a much lighter artillery piece which, in turn, makes it much easier to carry by helicopters. In 2006 the US issued its first patent for "bio-printing" or a process to print biological products, such as skin tissue, or heart tissue. Now, instead of the difficult process of grafting skin from one part of a body to another, you can conceivably print it instead. This would make cosmetic surgery easy, and burn victims, or acid attack victims could have their skin perfectly replaced, although of course the nerve damage would have to be repaired. But maybe that is only a technological step ahead, when we learn how to print those too.

Maybe the most intriguing part of the 3D printing revolution is the RepRap Project. The RepRap Project is a British initiative pioneered by Adrian Bowyer, a lecturer at Bath University. His idea was to design a 3D printer that could build most of its parts itself. In other words, a successful RepRap machine would be a self-replicating machine that could make endless copies of itself, of course with the necessary basic material. The RepRap project is an open source one, and it has driven many of the advances in 3D printing in the last few years because of the excitement it has generated and the ingenuity it has inspired. What it leads to, all of us will soon see.

 
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