We know the concept from that science fiction series that also introduced us to flip-up cell phones and touch-screen tablets decades before the real world made them available to consumers.‘Tea. Earl Grey. Hot.’ If you are unfamiliar with these words, it's how you order tea in Star Trek from the Replicator, an extremely advanced voice-activated 3D printer.
Researchers have been working for more than 20 years to realise a basic 3D printer. It's not a new technology in other words, but it has finally reached a price level that makes it affordable to small businesses and wealthier consumers. It is not unlikely that in 10 years a 3D printer will be as common as a traditional printer. The possibilities are very exciting, but certain industries will inevitably feel threatened. We will touch upon both the technical aspects and the ethical ones.
Layer by layer
Many companies are developing 3D printers by now. Wealthy consumers can already choose between a wide variety of models. The underlying principle is the same for all of them, and the starting point is always a 3D drawing of the product on a computer. Such a design can be made in dozens of programmes, from expensive software such as 3DStudioMax to freeware such as Google's Sketchup.
Before a 3D printer can begin printing, the 3D model needs to be processed. The object is sliced into hundreds, if not thousands, of very thin layers. The 3D printer will then proceed to reconstruct the object from the ground up, layer by layer. The latest generation printer has layers 0.1 mm thick, which indicates that the resolution of the reproduced objects is pretty impressive already. To create an object that is 10 cm high the 3D printer needs to reproduce 1,000 layers.
The ZPrinter 650, a high-end professional 3D printer at the moment.