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Transformational technology - 3D printing changes the game

Transformational technology - 3D printing changes the game Anthony Harrington

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All the fine financial tinkering and re-engineering in the world counts for very little when disruptive technologies roar in from over the horizon. The four big technology transformations now in train are probably 3D printing; new cancer drugs which effectively kill cancer cells without harming the patient; personalized medicines; and UAVs (drones, to you and I). Beyond drones, of course, lies robotics, which is already starting to transform warfare. Why put boots on the ground when you can swarm a million six-legged hand grenades at the enemy from the comfort of a nice air-conditioned office in Langley? Or, if you are a recycling buff, you could simply have the critters lob the hand grenade and scuttle back for a reload, instead of scattering metal parts all over the landscape. This is not sci-fi but today's lab technology - and tomorrow's front line weaponry.

But let us pull back from the horrors of robot warfare to focus on a hugely positive development, namely 3D printing, or accretive manufacturing. By now, the pool of people on the planet who have not heard of 3D printers must be shrinking fast. Plastic 3D printed guns caused something of a media frenzy, which helped to spread the word. However, building plastic objects, while great for a whole raft of household items, is not nearly as exciting as building with metal alloys. That brings a huge range of possibilities into play and holds truly disruptive potential, not least because it opens the door to near zero waste manufacturing, using extremely durable metal alloys.

It is important to note here, that loading a 3D printer with multiple “powders” means you could build electronic systems with embedded wiring and circuitry as a complete “single part” entity in one, sustained print process that need not be very much more complex than a color ink jet printer turning out a pin sharp photograph. The disruptive impact this will have on virtually every manufacturing process on the planet is mind-boggling.

In a bid to ensure that Europe grabs poll position in pioneering 3D manufacturing, the European Space Agency (ESA) has launched a major “accelerator” program called Amaze. This project brings together some 28 institutions across Europe, all committed to developing complex metal components using 3D printing. The resulting components will be lighter, cheaper and stronger than conventional products and the titanium alloys used in some of these products will be robust enough to stand up to 3,000 degrees of heat, making them suitable for use as rocket and jet engine components.

ESA is majoring on the fact that the layered, printed method allows geometries to be constructed that are impossible to achieve with traditional metal casting. Whole sub assemblies can be built, such as circular rotating parts with embedded ball bearings. When the design calls for two parts to be distinct and separate, as in ball bearings that have to be free to rotate, the laser simply skips a layer to create a void space.

Already, futurists are predicting that multi-function metallic oxide 3D printers will become household items within a few years, capable of turning out a huge range of electronic and other products “on demand” from free-to-use patterns on the internet. The powders required to provide the metal/plastic content will be bought like printer ink. If 3D graphene becomes readily synthesizable, free carbon monoxide will do very nicely.

Just in case you are feeling rather comfortable about all this, I should just join the dots with those opening thoughts about robotic warfare. A terrorist group with a 3D metal-manufacturing printer could have their own little scuttling drone army in double quick time, probably by 2017 or thereabouts.

Now how do we stop that, again?


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Tags: 3D printers , 3D printing , Amaze , defense , disruptive technology , ESA , European Space Agency , robot warfare , robotics , technology transformations , UAVs
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