Wednesday, 13 November 2013

Everything is a 3D printer these days

Our theory is that there is "No such thing as 3D Printing", but it appears that the media believe otherwise. To them, everything is a 3D Printer! This stance is fueling unrealistic expectations for Additive Manufacturing.

The hype works like this: The more objects that are presented as able to be "3D Printed", the more a "3D Printer" sounds to the uninformed observer like a current day (not futuristic) magical technology.

The latest examples include a circuit board/PCB "3D Printer", a "3D Printer" that prints disposable panties and a "3D Printer" that knits jumpers.  In all three cases the media described these innovations as "3D Printers". Not only are utterly different from each other, but they share little to nothing in common with mainstream Additive Manufacturing technologies.

Here are the latest "3D Printers":

The EX1 PCB Printer layers silver particles onto paper (or any suitable surface) to rapidly create an electronic circuit board. Components can then be soldered in place. It uses two ink jet cartridges to dispense two different chemicals which mix to produce a silver image.

Tamicare Cosyflex layers natural rubber polymers and cotton fibers to create a stretchy, biodegradable fabric. It feels like a woven cloth. It sprays the raw materials moving along an automated production line. It certainly looks like no "3D Printer" I have ever seen.  Its inventors claim the same approach can be used to create textiles from materials such as silicon, teflon, viscose and polyamide, and do so with combinations of patterns, embossing and perforations. The process is quick and can produce a pair of pants in under three seconds (which equates to up to 10 million units a year).

The Stoll knitting machine is also now dubbed a 3D printer. According to some reports it "3D prints" clothes. In fact, it reads measurements from a software application and then automatically knits them with minimal waste. The final garment still needs to be stitched together. A company called Applatch is running a campaign on KickStarter to fund their own Stoll machine so as to better serve their customers with custom fit sweaters that meet the company's sustainability and ethical goals, i.e. using the minimum naturally sourced materials.

What do these three stories of "3D Printing" tell us? What exactly is "3D Printing"? Watch this space for our definition coming soon.

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