Seen the HP printer ad on TV? It forces you to consider the vast number of possibilities in which to use your printer creatively. Going one leap of a dimension further are 3D printers. But are they as practical as they seem?
The British Education Department seems to think so. As, it considers bringing the technology to schools in the country. A recent newspaper article reported that British Education Secretary Michael Gove was putting together a £500,000 ($819,750) fund to enable at least 60 schools to buy 3D printers and train teachers to use them in science, technology, engineering and mathematics lessons.
Gove’s convictions on 3D printing were reinforced after Britain’s Royal Air Force successfully flight tested one of its Tornado jets carrying some parts made using a 3D printer, leaving in its trail hope for durable, reliable and viable manufacturing through 3D printing.
The flight that was tested used a 3D-printed protective shield for the landing gear, a secure cover for the cockpit radio and support struts on the air intake door, BAE systems, a British defence and aerospace firm, which used the technology effectively, was quoted as saying by the BBC.
Some of these parts were produced for as little as £100 ($165), making it cost-effective, compared to traditional manufacturing.
Since 3D printing made an impression in tech circles, and printers such as MakerBot, which its website says will cost $2,899 onwards, made home-printing affordable, it has fired imagination as to the extent of its use. At the CES 2014, MakerBot CEO Bre Pettis announced the MakerBot Replicator 3D Printing Platform which consists of the MakerBot Replicator Mini, a smaller 3D printer with the build volume of the original MakerBot Cupcake, the large Z18, and a new Replicator printer.
There was also a prototype children’s printer, designed by 3D printing expert Joris Peels, featured in a BBC article, which was expected to retail at about $800, but failed to take off after the maker could not attract enough funding.
For industrial-level specifications of manufacturing however, 3D printing alone, which is additive manufacturing (3D printers create an object layer by layer) as opposed to much of traditional manufacturing that is subtractive (to evoke an image, like a sculpture chipped away from a block of stone, but with industrial machinery).
The Economist talks about a pioneering hybrid printer that merges the best of both forms of manufacturing—the Lasertec 65 Additive Manufacturing machine—which apart from what its name suggests, can also do subtractive manufacturing when required. The Lasertec 65 is expected to go on sale this year for more than $500,000.
In subtractive manufacturing, a milling machine chisels finished products from metal blocks, resulting in a waste of the material by up to 95 per cent, whereas additive building can reduce wastage to about 5 per cent.
The hybrid Lasertecc 65’s dual ability to add and remove metals and alloys, makes it an effective industrial manufacturing tool.
Exciting times indeed. Will 2014 see an omnipresent spread of the printing technology? Certainly touted to be, watch for its imprint.