No guns in 3D printing land but almost anything else goes

A workshop in Rathmines gives a glimpse of the future, as printers turn out everything from miniature Wellington Monuments to . . . well, anything, so long as it’s non-lethal

Mon, Feb 10, 2014, 18:38

The first thing I see when I go in the door of 3D Printing Dublin in Rathmines is a prominent sign that declares, “3D printing of guns is not permitted here”.

Have the people of Dublin really been trying to print 3D guns, I ask the co-owner, Nigel Burke. He confirms they have.

“Do you get many people wanting to print guns?” I ask.

“Enough that I had to put that sign up.”

I’ve heard a lot about 3D printing, but I’m not too sure what it involves. It sounds amazing, with limitless creative potential, and the highway for our design future.

Together with fellow owner Leo Tilson, Burke opened 3D Printing Dublin last summer. The shop is on the main street, and has a printer in the window, which is almost always in use. I’ve passed by frequently since it opened, and there are usually people staring with fascination through the window at the printer, and the items around it – things the printer made earlier. One of these showpieces is a miniature of the Gutenberg printing press.

Every few weeks, Burke and Tilson hold a three-hour 3D printing information workshop for people who want to know more about the process. This is why I am here.

The biggest surprise of the evening – and there are many surprises – is hearing the relatively low cost of the machines. For €1,500, you can buy a machine that will print pieces no more than five inches high. The machines used to be much more expensive – at least €20,000 – but they are coming down steadily in price all the time.

“In about two years’ time, people will have them at home,” Burke predicts confidently. I’m still looking at him sceptically when the man sitting in front of me announces he is at the workshop because he intends buying a 3D printer for his house.

The shop has four printers, one of them made of wood. They look like overhead projectors with no insides, or unprepossessing hollow boxes. This is how they work, or at least, this is how I think they work, after Burke’s explanation.

Printers can print in 3D using metal, wood, paper, plastic and resin. The printers in Rathmines print in resin and plastic. Burke passes around three-inch lions on plinths, made of resin. A litre bottle of resin can be bought online for €150. You pour it into the machine, which heats it and then uses the pre-programmed design to build up many tiny layers.

The icing on the cake
People who ice cakes and do complex sugar work probably understand a lot more about 3D printing than they think. It’s a layering process: a 3D object is created by a kind of drip-feed needle from the machine going backwards and forwards to build up the piece. As it dries, another layer is added on top.

As the resin is a more expensive option, a lot of what they print is in plastic. You can buy a 100m reel of a type of plastic in pretty much any colour for €40. They are made of biodegradable polylactic acid, which is made from corn starch. They look like miniature extension lead coils. The reel sits at the back of the machine, and you feed the end of it in.

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