It’s plastic, it’s fantastic

2013-08-26 00:00

THERE was a time when the “chunk chunk chunk whirr” of the dot-matrix printer was a sound way ahead of its time.

Producing a legible page without too many ink smudges indeed elevated your status, as printers were the realm of a privileged few.

Cue 2013, and a printer that through revolutionary technology can deliver a replica of (almost) anything. Want to replace a cup or saucer in your prized tea set? Disfigured by an accident and need reconstructive surgery? Want to create a model car and start a new collection?

The concept of producing a 3D object by printing it at home seems like a futuristic idea that we may see only in the next decade, but 3D printing has been happening for longer than a decade, since around the eighties to be exact.

However, recently, more and more people have shown interest in the technology and are mind-boggled by how it works.

The technology is available everywhere around the world — in South Africa, KwaZulu-Natal and even in Pietermaritzburg.

Recently, the United States National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Nasa) announced that it would be funding projects for the printing of food. The first food to be printed would be a pizza. But for some, this may be too far-fetched to comprehend. How does 3D printing actually work to begin with?

Layer by layer

Last year, The Witness profiled Rapid 3D, a 3D printing company buried in Hilton in the Midlands, which is understandably one of the few 3D printing companies in the country.

We revisited the company to get a more in-depth view of how 3D printing works, its current uses and the future of the technology.

David Bullock, co-owner of the company, explained that 3D printing is basically the process of making an object layer by layer.

“It’s sometimes called additive manufacturing, because you’re adding material to create an object, as opposed to machining, where you build items,” he said.

Printing an object in 3D is a process that begins by inputting a 3D model of the object into a computer and spooling it to the printer. The printer then works by dropping a resin or liquefied form of plastic or other material in minute droplets, coupled with a support base, which is a type of powder or plastic that is then removed after the object has been printed. Other printers use nylon and objects are printed and bound together by a laser.

“When producing a plastic-based material, you basically have one material that will create the object and the other material that is sacrificial, and is the support material that gets melted or washed away.”

Common materials used are ABS (acrylonitrile butadiene styrene) or PLA (polyactic acid), which are thermoplastics, or a gypsum-based material that is similar to plaster of Paris.

Uses for 3D printing are endless. Bullock said that medical usage for the technology is vast, from materials used for facial reconstruction to medical models that are used to prepare for surgical procedures. This means that not only are surgeons able to have a physical model for a procedure, but they can plan the procedure before it takes place.

Other uses for the technology include reproduction of sculptures by artists, miniature models of vehicles, houses and other structures, for those in the field of architecture.

Prototypes for products are another avenue for the application of the technology.

“The jewellery industry is probably the one industry where the technology has really been embraced. Most jewellery is first produced by a 3D printer before [this is] used to make a mould and then produced in the metal that it is to be made out of,” Bullock said.

3D printing is closer to your home than you think, as 3D printers, as with many technologies, are getting cheaper. 3D printers are available internationally for about $500. South African companies are selling the printers at between R6 000 and R12 000, and they are available for purchase easily online.

With the technology becoming increasing available to the public, safety concerns around what you can print are raised. In parts of the world, the concept of 3D-printed weapons has become increasingly hyped.

But hype is all it is, says Bullock. “The possibility of printing a gun or parts for a weapon are real, but it’s as easy for me to dig in my garage and produce a homemade gun out of everyday materials. Of course, with 3D printing, you could have a more stylised design, and a proper resemblance of the weapon, but it’s just as dangerous to produce a home-made gadget.”

At present, 3D printing in South Africa is just a hobby, but the concept of producing specialised items for objects in the home is a reality. Thingverse.com is a website where users are able to share and download 3D models that can be printed using most household printers. Objects from cellphone covers and iPad holders to action figurines and frames, open up a world of possibility.

If you happen to be missing a specialised car bolt part or item that is not easily available in the country, the company that produces the item could send you a design for the object to be printed where you live.

Industrial companies are making use of printers that print using metal liquids to form stronger items used in machines. This can cut back on the cost of using more than the required amount of metal required to produce the object.

Which brings us to food.

Nasa is currently funding research with a company in Texas to explore the possibility of being able to 3D print food on deep-space missions. Of course, this would mean changing the liquid used to print objects to an edible one.

With all the possibilities surrounding the technology, 3D printing is becoming one of the fastest-growing industries in the world.

Maybe one day, we will be able to download and print a Big Mac from a McDonald’s menu, but until then we will have to settle for tasteless, test-tube burger patties.

• @KyleVenktess on Twitter

• kyle.venktess@witness.co.za

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