News

The biggest thing since the home computer: Printing in 3-D

HOME MADE: Ivan Casselman and the MakerBot Replicator 3D printer.
HOME MADE: Ivan Casselman and the MakerBot Replicator 3D printer. Jacklyn Wagner

WHEN Southern Cross University PhD student Ivan Casselman discovered a hook on his tent was broken the night before a camping trip, he wasn't concerned.

He simply downloaded his preferred hook design from a free site and sent the virtual blueprint to his 3D printer, which, as he slept, squeezed out one layer of heated corn-derived plastic at a time to manufacture the perfect tent hook.

Dubbed the biggest thing since the home computer, 3D printing allows users to manufacture any real object from a variety of materials, many of which are made from cheap, renewable resources.

While most printed objects are made in homes and offices using LEGO-like thermoplastics, scientists from Cornell University last month showed it is possible to create an actual ear using a 3D printer and injections of living cells. This finding was a huge leap towards medicine's holy grail of tissue regeneration, previously the sci-fi fantasy of Arnold Schwarzenegger Terminator films.

If the price of 3D printers continues to drop, it's likely that very soon custom mini-factories will be commonplace in every home and, more importantly, in every isolated rural hospital and under-resourced classroom.

While Ivan and other early adopters all over the world have been manufacturing one-off hooks, customised iPhone cases and other innocuous trinkets for a couple of years without too much media attention, it's taken a group of gun-happy DIYers to captivate our attention and illuminate the technology's implications.

An online group called Defense Distributed has collaboratively designed Wiki Weapon, a gun made up of 3D printed parts, designed to be downloaded freely online. While early testing has shown the printed gun to be a great big fizzer - it failed after just six shots - the intent of the project has sparked real concerns.

In the US it is legal to create your own firearms but not to distribute them. However in the case of printed guns, where 3D patterns are shared over the internet but manufactured at home, the Wiki Weapon represents a legal minefield.

Like most home 3D tinkerers, however, Ivan downplays the failed gun experiments, staying calm and carrying on printing.

"For me, 3D printing represents a shift from a physical to an information-based economy. It's the information that people want to pay for and that has huge environmental ramifications.

"Objects don't have to come to us mass-produced in big, dirty shipping containers from China," he says.

Ivan observes that the printed objects of early adopters are manufactured with a customised approach, which imbues objects with more meaning and are therefore less disposable.

An iPhone case can be easily printed, for example, with a person's name or custom design. Designs are tweaked and shared openly on the internet and this collaboration makes for constantly evolving designs.

But the biggest benefit of the technology - and the reason early adopters are happy to pay more than $2500 for a machine that essentially produces small plastic toys - is for disadvantaged communities when prices fall.

If demand continues to rise in the Western world, 3D printers will be able to be produced cheaply enough to be distributed to isolated places where the supply chain of life-saving equipment is challenged.

Already, young university students have designed simple plastic water purification systems that can be manufactured anywhere for next to nothing.

"3D printing has huge potential in developing areas. Imagine bringing these inexpensive machines, powered by solar panels, into an isolated rural environment," Ivan says.

Customised prosthetic limbs and medical supplies, for example, could potentially be available to anyone, anywhere.

This may be a technology that can put DIY guns into the hands of anyone with an internet connection, but at the pointy end of 3D printing, scientists are exploring the technology's use for tissue regeneration and prosthetics.

So while the technology has opened a legal and ethical Pandora's box that needs to be addressed, the fact is that 3D printing doesn't kill people.

Idiots with DIY plastic guns could.

And if research continues, 3D printing might actually be able to repair any harm done by the idiots.

On the market

The MakerBot Replicator: $2100

RepRapPro (needs assembling): $599

Ultimaker: $2,200 (assembled) or $1200 as a kit

Printrbot Jnr: Under $400 unassembled




Bexhill's George Singh (almost) ready to say goodbye

LOOKING BACK: Anne and George Singh pictured un 2012 after winning the 'I Love My Local Business' competition. Photo Liina Flynn / Northern Rivers Echo

When exactly will George Singh be saying goodbye?

New Lismore cafe offers quality, convenience and variety

Daniel Reid and Mel Rizzo of Mel's Cafe and Takeaway, a new cafe on Woodlark St in Lismore.

Owner waited 5 years for the perfect time and place to open her cafe

Six arrested over spate of break and enters

A man and woman were arrested following a police chase last night at Blacksoil.

Police have made a number of arrests

Latest deals and offers

Why Depp and Heard are fighting again

Amber Heard is furious over Depp taking advantage of her generosity

Kim Kardashian West steals hotel bath robes

Even Kim Kardashian steals bath robes from hotels, don't feel bad

Johnny Depp 'deeply respects' Amber Heard

Celebrity

Amber Heard gives away $7 million settlement to charity

John Williamson winding up for another Gympie Muster

John Williamson is bringing some new songs and artists to this year's Muster.

John Williamson is back and ready to put on his best show ever

Byron Bay Brewery will reopen next month

ENTERTAINMENT: For years, the Byron Bay Brewery has been an important venue for local artists to showcase their creations.

It has been closed for six weeks of renovations

The true cost of 60 Minutes debacle revealed

It's a bill that would make even a silk tied barrister blush

The "correction we had to have" in Gladstone's rentals

UPWARD MARCH: The rental vacancy rate in Gladstone has improved for the first time in more than a year, providing a confidence boost in the market.

Vacancy rates improve with signs that things are getting betterF

ISLAND FOR SALE: Cheap Fraser Coast island drops price again

Suna Island in the Great Sandy Strait will be auctioned by Ray White Hervey Bay on Saturday morning.

This is the cheapest island you will find for sale in Australia

How a family home can fit on a 250sq m block

This is what you can build on 250m2.

Here's the floor plan of a home built on 250sq m

Investors eye Gladstone's $4m island with resort approval

UP FOR SALE: Turtle Island is on the market.

CHINESE and Sydney investors flag interest in Gladstone island.

Take a sneak peek at this $19m Whitsunday mansion

Mandalay House features a private helipad.

Mandalay is currently on the market with an asking price of $19m

Guess which Sunshine Coast suburb cracked the million dollar list?

This four-bedroom home at 26 McAnally Dr, Sunshine Beach was for sale for $7 million.

List of Australia's five most-expensive suburbs