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22 October 2012

3D printing is enough to make anyone lose their cool

“Oh My God: a chain mail glove!”

By Michael Brooks

Wargamers were clearly very excited at the 3D Printshow this weekend. And who can blame them? Dressing up for an evening in would be a lot easier when the outfits were made of printed plastic.

I first wrote about 3D printing in 2000. The only example product I could get then was a weighty brick of beige plastic whose top layer vaguely resembled a mobile phone keypad. Fast-forward 12 years, and I can’t get the samples into my bulging pockets fast enough.

For the uninitiated, 3D printing is essentially a way to manufacture objects by building them out of layers of molten plastic or metal, drop by drop. The technology is essentially the same as inkjet printing onto paper. But the results are astounding.

This event, held at The Brewery on Chiswell Street, boasted exhibits from all over the world. There were toys, masks, clothes (including a 3D printed gold chain wrap), statues and – well, anything that somebody could think of. And the exhibition kept growing: a couple of trade stands captured multiple images of passers-by, rendered them in 3D on computers then reconstructed their heads in plastic.

It was all insanely cool. Of course it was: this is “the manufacturing technology that will change the world”, if the Economist is to be believed. But my biggest discovery was that you can overdose on cool.

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Panicked by an overwhelming sense of Want, I found myself taking refuge in the more academic and sober confines of Louise Leakey’s stand. She had 3D printed hominid skulls, constructed from digital scans of the Kenyan fossils her father Richard discovered (also on display in a virtual musem at The skulls are not allowed to leave Nairobi’s national museum. Researchers wanting to study them for clues to our species’ history have had to travel to Africa, or work with plaster-cast reconstructions that quickly shrink and crack. Now, though, they will be able to download the digital files and print their own fossils.

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There are plenty of such serious uses for 3D printers. A woman in Belgium is walking around with a 3D printed jawbone in her mouth; it replaced her original, which was destroyed by a bone infection. You can print pharmaceuticals for healthcare and weapons for the opposite: a 3D printed handgun, anyone? The US military is now dropping 3D printers into Afghanistan so that its troops can design, make and manufacture spare parts and accessories for their equipment. Car manufacturers are using them to create spare parts. And there’s the printed copy of a Stradivarius violin that has resonant qualities equivalent to the original. One of these instruments featured in the printed fashion show events, accompanied by 3D printed guitars and drums banged with 3D printed drumsticks.

Want. It. All.