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.

The heat melts the plastic, and then, like the resin, it starts creating a shape by building up layers. Depending on the size and volume of the piece, it can take several hours to print. Burke passes around a plastic, printed model of the Wellington Monument in Phoenix Park, which is a Dublin icon I associate with a much-loved late uncle, the first person to show it to me. I am not brave enough to ask if I can keep it, but I pass it with the utmost reluctance.

My reaction to the miniature monument is part of the reason 3D printing looks likely to have a big future. “We’ve been brought up to be consumers, and people love personalisation,” says Burke. “The designer is at the heart of the operation.”

If you are smarter than I am, you will be able to design it yourself, using computer-aided design. Or you can download the thousands of 3D templates online, many of them available through open source. Or pay a third party to make things for you.

One of the things that will make 3D printing far more accessible will be cheaper 3D scanners. This means that if, for instance, you break a handle on a kitchen cupboard, you merely take another one, put it in the scanner, and print out a copy. The process is likely to totally change consumer patterns.

There is a trend of people commissioning 3D models of themselves. Obviously a person can’t fit into a scanner, but there are studio spaces you can stand in the middle of a circular space, where cameras take pictures of you from all angles. A computer programme can then produce 3D images, which can be printed in different sizes. There is also a facility to get the models painted, so you could have images of your entire family on your mantelpiece. These are particularly popular as bride and groom toppers on wedding cakes.


More serious applications
Aside from the fun of creating miniature relatives and Wellington Monuments, there are more serious aspects to 3D printing. Medicine is a key area. Burke tells us that there are facilities to scan and print an image of an organ, such as a heart, that needs surgery. Surgeons then have the opportunity to examine a replica of the organ before they operate.

I also learn that the car and aviation industry are already in 3D. “Most cars on the road now have some 3D input,” says Burke. There are 3D machines printing bespoke chocolate and pasta. There have even been 3D print-outs of babies scanned in the womb.

Most of the workshop is a presentation, but we get a chance to sit at computers and try designing in CAD. I have a go at designing a house. It’s oddly addictive; the idea that I could print this object, monstrosity that it is. Before I leave, Burke shows me a striking 3D model of a castle with a moat. He tells me his 12-year-old son made it. Printing in 3D isn’t the future – it’s already here.


The next workshop at 3D Printing Dublin is at 6pm tomorrow, 3dprintingdublin.ie

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