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3D printing: print three-dimensional objects at home

A look at the 3D printers available both today and in the future

The future of 3D printing

With 3D printing only just starting to hit the big time, we can be pretty sure that many new developments are going to be coming our way in the near future. Although some of the larger consumer-oriented 3D services claim they can print your creation in a huge number of different materials, in reality most of those materials are plastics of various types and in various colours.

But a much broader range of materials has been used, with others under development, and we can reasonably expect that these exciting new materials will soon be available to us all.

If little plastic ornaments don’t really hit the spot, you’ll soon be able to print in a broad range of much classier materials including pewter, glass, wood (actually a plastic wood mixture but supposedly it looks like real wood), fabrics, and even precious metals. Printing in chocolate is a reality too so we can bet that customised confectionaries will soon be on offer.

On a more serious note, we’re also going to see the greater availability of steel and tungsten alloys for printing parts that are stronger than plastic and could be used, for example, to repair a car or bicycle. Perhaps one of the most innovative possibilities, though, is printable electronics and scientists at Warwick University have already printed a game controller.

A major limitation of budget 3D printers is that they can only print small items. Printing bureaux tend to have bigger machines so they can print larger objects but using conventional printers you’re not going to get a lot larger than a one metre cube. The size of the output doesn’t have to be limited by the size of the printer, though, and scientists have developed 3D printers that can move around, like industrial robots, to create objects larger than the printers themselves.

Aircraft manufacturer EADS is developing a method of printing wings for jet airliners, while Dutch architect Janjaap Ruijssenaars of Universe Architecture has recently revealed plans for an entire house, built as a never-ending Möbius Strip that will be built in concrete using a huge 3D printer.

Impressive as all these innovations might be, an even more ground-breaking development could, according to some experts, be every bit as revolutionary as the invention of the Internet. Earlier this year, music and movie retailer HMV went into receivership due, to no small extent, to the growth in music downloads.

Yet if being able to download music tracks, rather than buying a disk from a high street store, has proved so fundamental to the music industry, just imagine the impact of being able to download pretty much anything you want and printing it out at home. OK, so we’re going out on a limb here and we honestly doubt that this will ever come to fruition.

Nevertheless, imagine, if you will, that Apple has just launched the much awaited iPhone 17. But you’re not going to be queuing outside an electronics store to be the first to own this latest 9G model with its holographic display and 1,024-core processor. Instead, all you’d need to do is download it from Apple's website and print it out on your desktop 3D printer. Now that’s what we call convenience.

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