Copying, even colour copying, is so passé now. Forget colour
scanning. People want to see things for real. They want to see things in
three dimensions. This is where 3 D Copying and Printing comes in. It is
one of the most exciting fields of scientific innovation and endeavour
right now, with so much happening every day.
Just what is 3 D printing? The common definition is “a process of
making a 3 D solid object of virtually any shape from a digital model”.
The technology is used for both prototyping and manufacturing in
jewellery, footwear, industrial design, architecture, engineering and
construction, automotive, aerospace, dental and medical industries,
education, geographic information systems, civil engineering, and many
other fields. The good news is that 3 D printing is a lot less expensive
now than it was even five years ago - you are looking at paying US$
1,000 for a low-end machine. (There are 2-D colour photocopiers that
The possibilities of 3D printing are mind boggling. If you are an
architect, forget about showing 3-D computer renderings of your projects
to clients. Just print a model of what their building would look like
for real, in three dimensions. It’s a heaven-sent solution for surgery -
just the other day, I read a report on how surgeons saved a baby’s life
by using a device to help him breathe created by a 3D printer. Microsoft
unveiled its next generation video game console the X-Box One. The
console, which will feature 15 exclusive titles, Skype video calling,
and a voice and gesture command feature, came with one other surprise;
it was prototyped using 3D printers.
Given more time to develop, 3-D printing could become as
revolutionary as printing itself. As one 3-D printing expert pointed out
recently “it is a great opportunity for entrepreneurs and start-up
companies - turn an idea into a design, into a product almost instantly,
and then reach an internet marketplace at the click of a mouse”.
You don’t even have to own a 3-D printer to enjoy its advantages. The
Dutch company Shapeways in New York has a battery of 3D printing
machines to make things sent in by its customers -as data - over the
Internet. The products, including lots of jewellery and individualised
smartphone cases are then shipped back to them a few days later. This is
3D printing for people who don't want to spend US$ 1,000 or more on
their own machine.
However, 3-D printing is not only about the good things in life. One
case in point is the recent printing of a plastic gun by an outfit that
calls itself Defense Distributed. It created a huge controversy by
posting the blueprints for the gun online on its site, though it was
later pulled out on the request of the US Government. It was too late,
because the blueprints are freely available on many other sites which
the US Government cannot regulate. One major concern about the gun was
that it may not be detectable at airport security stations, being
plastic. There is a chance that terrorists may use 3-D printers to
create guns and weapons.
On the other hand, fears have been expressed that such governmental
action may hinder the development of 3-D printing. There has to be a
sense of balance in this regard – creativity should not be stifled, but
any dangerous or anti-social ideas must not be entertained. There are
two sides to every coin and 3-D printing is no exception.
As with any new technology, the good side seems to be defeating the
bad side here as well. And now NASA has come up with the ultimate 3-D
printing ‘recipe’ – 3-D printed food. The space agency is paying US$
125,000 to study the use of 3-D printing technology for food preparation
in space. (If you have already seen such a thing on TV, it must have
been a 45-year old episode of Star Trek, which featured 3-D food
printing long before anyone even thought of it).
“We will be building the components for a prototype” over the grant's
six-month period, David Irwin, principal investigator for the project at
Texas-based Systems and Materials Research Consultancy, told NBC. The
idea is to use a 3-D printer to turn generic mixes of starch, protein
and fat into textured foodie-type elements, and then add flavourings
with an ink-jet device. Theoretically, you could have a warm slice of
crusty-type starch material topped with (fake/manufactured) cheese,
sauce and pepperoni. The advantages of using such a technique on a (four
or five-year) trip to say, Mars, are obvious. In fact, the project is
part of the space agency's effort to widen the menu options for future
space travellers when they head out to Mars or a near-Earth asteroid.
Basic unflavoured ingredients could be kept in long-term storage - up
to 30 years. The 3-D printer could build up different blends of the
basics with different textures. Food-specific flavourings could be
sprayed onto the components of synthetic food. Thus, the same device
could turn out pizzas on one day, and tacos on the next for extra spice
and variety. Astronauts are much more likely to warm up to such a
machine than to pre-packaged, bland ‘real’ food that had been in a
freezer for years. And the biggest advantage is zero waste, which is
essential for long-term space trips.
Apart from its potential use on space trips a la Star Trek, it could
be a very long term answer to the food crisis facing most parts of the
world. As agricultural lands are taken over for settlement and other
purposes, the world will face a major problem in feeding up to nine
billion people by 2050. If foods could be artificially manufactured from
a few basic ingredients, it could resolve this crisis to a great extent.
The technology should be perfected and the costs should come down
greatly for this to happen, but it nevertheless offers a tantalising
possibility. Printed foods may not be the stuff of science fiction after