Make it so: space age printers that could change life as we know it


Downloadable car parts and handles for spaceships? It’s not ‘Star Trek’ but a 3D revolution scientists say has already begun, writes PATRICK FREYNE

IN STAR TREK, when characters want a new lampshade, violin or Klingon ceremonial robe, they walk up to a “replicator” in the wall of their spaceship, say “lampshade” (or whatever), and one instantly appears. And in the real world, over the past few years, with access to the right technology, it has been possible to create solid three-dimensional objects by simply clicking “print”. Although 3D printing, which can take hours or days, is not quite as responsive as a Star Trekreplicator, aficionados of the technology like the analogy.

“It is going in the same direction as Captain Janeway on Star Trek: Voyager, walking up to the wall, saying ‘cup of tea’, and having one materialise,” says Michael Ring, a lecturer in the school of manufacturing and design at Dublin Institute of Technology. “It’s not exactly like that, but it’s close. We’re getting there.” According to the experts this technology is going to change our lives. “It already has,” says Ring, “but people don’t know it yet.”

At Trinity College Dublin, Kevin Kelly, a lecturer in the department of mechanical and manufacturing engineering, also nods vigorously at the Star Trekreference. He explains that 3D printing, or rapid prototyping, was first developed in 1980, when it was called stereo lithography.

“The first time I saw it personally was in 1995, and they got the first machine here in Trinity at some point between that time and 2000,” he says. “It’s what we call additive manufacturing. You’re basically building one plane on top of another.”

Kelly and the department’s chief technical officer, Michael Reilly, show me several machines in a loud, industrious workshop in Trinity’s Parsons Building. These include a low-cost model called a Repman (“It can re-create its own parts if it needs replacements,” says Reilly), another machine that builds models in thin layers of melted plastic, and one developed by an Irish company called Mcor Technologies, which makes models out of A4 paper. Kelly and Reilly also show me several objects that have been printed that day, including detailed replicas of pelvic bones, vertebrae and leg bones.

“We do a lot of work with the biomedical department,” says Kelly. “A full model of a skull is no more difficult than a rectangular box.”

The technology is used for medical purposes in DIT too. “Say they need to operate on someone at the maxillofacial clinic,” says Michael Ring. “Well, a Cat scan is 200 slices through a person’s head, and then the surgeon looks at 200 images and goes down ‘flick, flick, flick’ through them. Instead we can interpret the images together and build a solid model on the machine and bring it over to them.”

The machines are also used in DIT’s product-design programme. “A student might be trying to design a new kind of mouse, and has squeezed a good ergonomic design out of wax or clay,” says Ring. “We have scanners that can scan the object, and then we can build it and they can look, feel and refine it.”

Ring believes the technology is underused, but Conor MacCormack of Mcor Technologies, in Co Louth, is trying to change this. A former Trinity research engineer, MacCormack and his brother Fintan have designed a more cost-effective machine.

“There have been different technologies which use lasers and resins – very complicated and expensive machines,” he says. “We wanted to bring it to a mass market. The problem with the other machines is that they’re really expensive to run, so we came up with one that uses standard A4 sheets of paper, which makes it 60 times cheaper than the market-leading machine.”

The Mcor machines have been used by architects, artists and designers to build prototypes, but some big manufacturers are beginning to use their own state-of-the-art, top-of-the-range machines to produce finished, working parts.

“A few years ago Volvo called back 100 cars that needed a small gear and the company just made the piece on its rapid-prototyping machine,” says Ring, who can foresee a time when we’ll use desktop machines to download spare parts. “When a bit of your dishwasher breaks you’ll go to the Zanussi website, find the piece and print it off.”

MacCormack is warier. “There is a big debate going on in the industry about how far it’s going to go,” he says. “Some are talking about creating machines that can print out mobile phones and complete devices. I don’t know about that.

“But the market is about to explode. In 2009 there were just under 5,500 3D printers sold globally, but there are millions of computer-aided design installations out there and all of those, in theory, would need to print in 3D. I can see every school, small studio, architect or engineer eventually having the technology.”

If this sounds space age, it is. “They have one of these machines up in the space station,” says Ring. “They weren’t sure whether the plastic would build right in space, so they brought it up in one of those planes that simulates zero gravity and it worked like a charm. They have it because if they break a plastic handle up there they couldn’t spend €20 million sending up a replacement, so instead they have a machine up there to build their own handles.”

So, as we speak, floating somewhere above us there’s a replicator on a spaceship? Ring laughs. “Gene Roddenberry” – the creator of Star Trek– “really is my guide on these things. He got a lot of things right.”