There was an interesting news item this week - a shot was fired from a gun "printed" at home using a 3D printer. Wait a minute. Printed?
Yes. You can now "print" almost anything - a customised mobile phone cover, a replica of that antique lamp shade you broke and haven't yet found a replacement for and, even, a prosthetic ear. Best of all, you can build them according to your desire - an exact copy if you wish, or tweaked to suit your fancies.
What is a 3D printer? How does it work?
It's very similar to an inkjet printer that many of you use at office or home. But instead of a cartridge full of ink, a desktop 3D printer uses special plastic threads, called ABS filament, in different colours.
The machine uses high heat to melt these filaments and then creates the desired three-dimensional object drop by drop, layer by layer. This process of building up objects by aggregating drops of molten material is called 3D printing.
Industrial machines use metals and polymer , with which one can ‘print’ many more items — bicycle, door handle, motor parts, furniture, lamps…
How do you get one?
If you want one for your home, you could consider the Makerbot (www.makerbot.com) or a do-it-yourself printer from the RepRap Wiki (reprap.org/wiki/). Even Hewlett Packard has one. You still can't walk into a shop and buy one, but will be able to do that within a year.
The DIY kits start at around $1,500 (about R80,000 + duties and shipping) and ready printers start at $2,000 (about R1.06 lakh + duties and shipping).
Then, you will need the ABS filament, which costs about R2,500 per kg on Amazon and Ebay. Colours such as green, red, blue, black and yellow are readily available.
Industrial 3D printers start at about $15,000 (R8 lakh+duties and shipping).
How do you use a 3D printer?
Using a 3D printer is very similar to using your computer printer. It should be connected to a computer, or take a memory card / USB pen drive with a drawing file on it.
An average phone case will take approximately an hour to "print". Really complex designs and shapes can, however, take days. But push in the program, give it the command, and everything will happen automatically, unless you need to change the filament in between.
Do you need special training to use it?
If you are going to be printing out phone covers or small objects, there are enough 3D models available to download from the internet. Just download the design, load it into your printer, give the command and voila! Your product will take shape before your eyes.
But you can always get free software such as the Autocad 123D (from http://www.123dapp.com/) if you want to design your own stuff.
The software is fairly easy to use. You generate the 3D model by drawing it, add whatever features you want, and go to print. If the end product does not come out the way you want it, junk it and print another one, just as you do with letters on a normal inkjet printer.
And the gun?
You can print a gun if you want, or a knife. But consider this: in 2008, the first 3D printed prosthetic leg was used by a human. Technology can enable us to build things that can save a life, and also take one. It's up to us to choose which side we want to be on.