3D printing may change all aspects of life: US expert

Source:Xinhua Published: 2013-7-7 16:39:13

The thriving 3D printing technology will revolutionize the manufacturing industry and have a far-reaching impact on people's daily lives, a US expert told Xinhua.

Matthew Wettergreen, assistant director of rapid prototyping program and lecturer at Rice University, said the fledgling technology "allows us to view 3D printing as something that will change all aspects of our lives and each individual person."

3D printing, which is now still in its infancy, started about 30 years ago in the United States. It is a process of making a three-dimensional solid object of virtually any shape from a digital model and "essentially a way of bringing tangible ideas to creations," Wettergreen introduced.

The technology uses an additive process, where successive layers of material are laid down in different shapes while traditional machining techniques uses subtractive processes, which mostly rely on the removal of material by methods such as cutting or drilling, Wettergreen explained.

Compared with traditional printing, 3D printing is more cost-effective and time-efficient when it is used to make an object moving from ideas to physical objects.

Meanwhile, it makes possible for ordinary people to design and produce their own creation, which used to be the privilege of high-priced designers and tech-sophisticated factories.

Wettergreen said the opportunities for 3D printing are just showing themselves. Due to its high threshold, the technology used to be applied mainly in scientific and industrial use. "But researchers are now trying to reduce the level of intellect or knowledge required to use it. And we are making efforts to simplify the technique to the point where any person without training can use 3D printing," he said.

In fact, 3D printing machines have already hit the US market with an expected welcome. Staples Inc., a US office supply chain store, offers low-cost 3D printers ranging from 400 to 3,000 US dollars.

3D printing is becoming popular not only in the United States but also all over the world. The technology is increasingly public-oriented and moving towards mass production, Wettergreen noted. "All over the world if you have internet connection, you can actually hit 'print' on an object and have it made in your house."

The materials 3D printers use now are usually plastic, and their strength lies in making small parts. Wettergreen said it is expected to change in the near future when multiple materials that are able to print different densities and different porosities with multiple functions can be used.

"We will see printed houses. We will see printed buildings. Every object that we wish will be created with 3D printing at this point. It will revolutionize manufacturing for the entire planet," he said.

Asked about the newly-tested 3D printable guns in Austin, Texas, Wettergreen said the problem "is a technical issue, not a firearm issue."

"People have been able to find and freely obtain recipes and directions for making harmful objects at home. So this is no different than a situation that has existed for quite some time. It's just we have a new technology now that can be used to manufacture the weapons. And that makes people on edge," said the US expert.

Last month, the Texas-based company Defense Distributed successfully test-fired a plastic gun made with an 8,000-dollar 3D printer, immediately sparking outcries from gun control advocates. The US government has ordered to take blueprints of the 3D gun offline

Concerning public worries about the printable gun, Wettergreen pointed out that construction of a gun involves high pressure, high temperature and high precision manufacturing, which could not be achieved with a low-cost machine.

"Moreover, the news neglected the fact that the company made a few failed tests after the successful firing. The machine actually can only produce parts of the gun rather than a whole gun," said Wettergreen, trying to dispel public's concerns.

"The optimism about this technology far outweighs the pessimism. And that's not because the opportunities to fabricate any objects to speed up supply chain, to actually develop the new industry and markets. 3D printing brings us new possibilities to view and to change our lives," he concluded.

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