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More ways to utilise that 3D printer

02 Sep 2014  | Jim O'Reilly

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No more teacups! It's time to get real when it comes to 3D printing.

Are you like me? Every time I see yet another pastel-coloured mug advertising the wonders of 3D printing, I cringe. The whole idea of advertising such a high-potential technology with a decades-old gee-whiz approach galls me. 3D printing is a powerful tool in the hands of professionals. It can do jobs that no other manufacturing technology can touch, and it allows economic production of small runs.

The choice of that mug design highlights a problem with printing. The output-side technology (the printer) is well evolved, but the input side has languished. The printing technology has failed to take off and isn't yet fully adequate to the job. That doesn't make the printers unusable, of course, but they don't exploit the full potential of 3D.

The issue starts with CAD software tools. These are designed for the traditional processes of stamping, bending, grinding, and moulding, and need to add a set of printing-oriented options to the front-end design creation suite. Concepts like constrained colour control, shrinkage in fine-blanking processes, surface finish specification, and such need to be added to the design palette.

In some other areas, the tools available are unique to the 3D-printing space, though they are expanding out to other uses. Possibly driven by visions of a transporter beam or replicator from Star Trek, 3D scanning is a great complement to the printing capability. It is the solid version of a Xerox machine.

Not only can parts be copied, they can be copied from a wax, clay, wood, ceramic, or metal template and converted to new materials. That's a powerful tool, since it allows new ways to create parts cheaply. This approach is spawning a new business model for replicas of art objects where realistic, accurate copies can be generated automatically. The museum replica business just found a new way of doing things, for instance.

Being able to scan shapes is a new tool in the jewellery trade. Free form, flowing designs are notoriously difficult to do with CAD tools. The ideal vehicle is to make a prototype part by hand in wax and then 3D-scan it into a computer.

3D printing

(Source: Wikipedia)

The most innovative use of 3D scanning to date is a Christmas offer by a major department store to scan objects and create replicas. Using this approach, it is possible to create figures or busts of loved ones. It is pricy, but it beats the heck out of green pastel mugs!

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