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3D Printing: the next advance in digital printing
Posted on May 28th, 2014

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Imagine a future in which a device connected to a computer can print a solid object. A future in which we can have tangible goods as well as intangible services delivered to our desktops or highstreet shops over the Internet. And a future in which the everyday “atomization” of virtual objects into hard reality has turned the mass pre-production and stock-holding of a wide range of goods and spare parts into no more than an historical legacy.

Such a future may sound like it is being plucked from the worlds of Star Trek. However, while transporter devices that can instantaneously deliver us to remote locations may remain a fantasy, 3D printers capable of outputting physical objects have been in both development and application for over three decades, and are now starting to present a whole host of new digital manufacturing capabilities. 3D printing may therefore soon do for manufacturing what computers and the Internet have already done for the creation, processing and storage of information. Such a possibility has also started to capture mainstream media attention.

The following provides an overview of 3D printing technologies and their present and likely future application.

Current 3D Printing Applications

Most current 3D printers are not used to create final consumer products. Rather, they are generally employed for rapid product prototyping, or to produce moulds or mould masters that will in turn allow the production of final items. Such printing of 3D objects already enables engineers to check the fit of different parts long before they commit to costly production, architects to show detailed and relatively low-cost scale models to their clients, and medical professionals or archaeologists to handle full-size, 3D copies of bones printed from 3D scan data. There are also a wide range of educational uses.

The range of products that have employed 3D printers in their design process or to produce final moulds or mould masters is constantly growing. To date such products include automobiles, trainers, jewellery, plastic toys, coffee makers, and all sorts of plastic bottles, packaging and containers. More usefully, some dental labs have for some years been using 3D printers to help create appliances, for use in the creation of crowns, bridges and temporaries by dental technicians. Using this technology, even long-term temporaries can now be created, meaning that 3D printers can quite literally already print you new teeth! 3D printers are now also widely used by many major hearing aid manufacturers to produce ear moulds and shells for final consumer use.



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