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Brave, personalised world of 3-D printing

You may have seen some odd-shaped plastic trinkets on someone’s desk or heard about the first shots fired a few weeks ago from a 3-D printed gun.

world Updated: Jun 20, 2013 23:19 IST

You may have seen some odd-shaped plastic trinkets on someone’s desk or heard about the first shots fired a few weeks ago from a 3-D printed gun.

With every new 3-D printed object, the world seems to be getting closer to a future where we can “print out” objects like furniture, clothing, human tissue and even buildings. The possibilities are staggering.

Why, then, do even the most ardent 3-D printing evangelists show off this brave new world with dull-as-nails examples — Dishwasher knobs. Is that all there is?

“That’s the million-dollar question,” said Alyssa Reichental, who works at 3D Systems and showed off the company’s Cube printer at a recent trade show in New York. Right now, it seems, 3-D printing is more about the technology’s potential than anything practical. After some thought, she added, “We see it as more of a lifestyle.”

The technology behind 3-D printing has been used in commercial manufacturing for decades, but home machines from companies like 3D Systems, MakerBot and Afinia have opened up the technology to more users in the past few years.

Most 3-D printers work by threading spools of plastic filament onto a heated nozzle that drops liquid plastic onto a surface one layer at a time until an object, typically no bigger than a grapefruit, is formed. If you want to dip into the world of printables, it may be wise to begin your experiments alongside an enthusiastic hobbyist or professional who can guide you.

As 3-D printing begins to show its promise, here are five categories where it makes good sense to get started.

Customize cheaply
In the land of 3-D printing, you do not have to settle for a bland, boring “World’s No. 1 Mom” mug anymore, not when you can produce a sculptural model, in plastic, of your mother’s head for pennies. And why stop there? You can make personalized wedding cake toppers, even Star Trek figurines in your likeness.

Win plastic part battle
There are few greater frustrations than when a tiny plastic part breaks and your blender - or whatever - no longer works. The part may be cheap, but if you cannot find it, the world suddenly feels as if there were a conspiracy by Big Plastic to keep you buying blenders.

Make your adapters
Both Duplo and Brio make charming wooden train sets for children. Their track sets, however, are not compatible. You can be a Brio family or a Duplo family, but not both.

Spread 3-D knowledge
Beyond the recently released designs for “The Liberator,” a 3-D printed gun made almost entirely out of plastic, there are a number of ways to test the limits of intellectual property — if that’s your thing.

Prototype, invent and learn
For people who like to tinker, build prototypes and invent things, 3-D printing provides a fast track to making stuff.

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