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Photos: Forget paper - meet the printer that can print your car parts

3D printers that can make anything from a chess set to a prosthetic limb
By Nick Heath, Contributor on
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1 of 6 Nick Heath/ZDNET

3D printers that can make anything from a chess set to a prosthetic limb

In Star Trek, the Starship Enterprise came equipped with a replicator able to rustle up a glass of whisky - or whatever else its user fancied - at the touch of a button.

The closest we can get to that today are 3D printers: devices capable of creating solid, three-dimensional objects, from prosthetic limbs and miniature chess sets, to car and aeroplane parts.

One such 3D printer, made by a company called Electro Optical Systems, was on show at the Science Museum in London this week.

To create an object with the printer, a designer starts by drawing a 3D image using CAD software and saving it as a file that can be understood by the printer. Software on the printer then divides the image into multiple, super-thin layers.

A layer of powder, made out of either plastic, metal or sand, is then deposited in a container inside the printer. A laser in the top of the machine traces the outline of the base of the 3D image onto the powder, as seen below. The laser's movements are precisely controlled to match the shape of the 3D image stored in the printer's memory and the heat from the laser fuses the powder, forming the bottom of the object.

A fresh coating of powder is then deposited and the next tier of the image is etched by the laser, fusing the next layer of the shape. This process - known as laser sintering - is repeated, building layer upon layer, until the object is complete, with the printer able to build an object at a speed of 15mm per hour.

Click here to see a video of the printer in action.

3d laser printing

Here, the 3D printer's laser traces the outline of an object

Photo credit: (top and bottom) Electro Optical Systems

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2 of 6 Nick Heath/ZDNET

The process of 3D printing has traditionally been used by companies as a way of rapidly producing prototypes - around 80 per cent of 3D printers are used for this purpose.

However, a number of companies are starting to use the process to manufacture products, with the Williams F1 racing team and Bentley using it to make parts for their cars and Dyson using it to make its vacuum cleaners.

A laser sintering machine was used to print out the prosthetic leg - similar to the one seen above - worn by Michael Teuber, the Paralympic cyclist who won a gold medal in Beijing last year.

Photo credit: Nick Heath/silicon.com

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3 of 6 Nick Heath/ZDNET

Here is a dental bridge that has been printed out by a laser sintering machine using a cobalt/chromium powder.

First a mould is taken of the patient's teeth, a 3D laser scan of which is turned into a CAD image that the printer can slice into layers.

The laser sintering then builds the bridge out of the metal powder layer by layer.

Show here on the left is a metal bridge that has been printed out but has not yet had a ceramic coating, which will make it look like it is made out of tooth enamel, applied. On the right is the finished, ceramic-coated bridge fitted to some teeth.

There are centres across Europe that are printing out crowns and bridges using the machines, including one in Newbury in the UK.

Photo credit: Nick Heath/silicon.com

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4 of 6 Nick Heath/ZDNET

The level of fine detail in the chess pieces on this tiny board shows how precisely the printer can control the laser.

While the machine on show at the Science Museum would set you back £150,000, a top-of-the-range machine that prints using a specialised form of plastic called peek, which is capable of withstanding high temperatures, would sell for £1m.

Photo credit: Electro Optical Systems

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5 of 6 Nick Heath/ZDNET

While the technology is too expensive for home use by consumers, they will soon be able to use it to customise trinkets for their homes.

A company called Digital Forming is about to launch software that large companies will be able to embed into their websites to allow their customers to tweak the designs of their products.

Consumers would be able to alter the shape and colour of objects using the online software and Digital Forming would then print off the product using a laser-sintering machine, allowing shoppers to create bespoke objects such as this lamp.

Photo credit: Nick Heath/silicon.com

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Here's another bespoke item for the home designed using the Digital Forming service. This chair-like sculpture was printed in four parts and then fitted together.

Photo credit: Nick Heath/silicon.com

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