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Printing out the future

Printing for a long time was purely a two dimensional affair for the most of us but in the background a quiet revolution has been happening with 3D printing finally starting to enter the mainstream.

To understand what’s happening it is necessary to trace it back to it beginning.

In March 1986 Chuck Hall was granted a patent for his 1984 application entitled “Apparatus for Production of Three-Dimensional Objects by Stereolithography”, to those in the know he is credited with the invention of 3D printing.  His company 3D Systems entered the rapid prototyping market with a process where a thin layer of UV curable polymer is deposited and then exposed to bright Ultra violet light and then another layer is added and the process is repeated so that gradually layer by layer a 3D object is produced, in a process known as additive manufacturing.  Chuck Hall went on to be awarded over 60 key patents in the field.  He is also credited with the creation of the STL file format which is a standard file used by 3D printers to define what needs to be printed at each stratification in order to fabricate the desired 3D object.

Since these first 3D printers they have grown ever more sophisticated, the range of applicable materials which can be used as the print medium have expanded from weak plastics to ever more hardy materials even metals (and even chocolate…) The current state of the art ones use a process known as SLS or Selective Laser Sintering to give it its full name – to produce prototypes in extremely durable plastic or metal complete with moving internal part which would be impossible to fabricate using traditional techniques.

Still up till recently these printers have remained out of reach to all but the most well off hobbyist often costing several thousand pounds/euros/dollars etc, however over the last couple of years the printers capable of printing in plastics have come down in price to the point where a fairly respectable printer could be brought for around £800 (e.g. makerbot), now there are moves to produce a low cost printer capable of printing with metal and last month scientists from Michigan Tech have demonstrated an open source printer which prints using steel and can be put together for £800.  Although it’s resolution is fairly limited at the moment the people behind it are confident that due to its open source nature the maker community will rapidly improve it to the point where it becomes useful.

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