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Now is a good time to get involved ...
on 9 October 2013
I thoroughly enjoyed reading "Fabricated the New World of 3D Printing" as it gives insight into what is happening right now over a wide field of applications of 3D printing. Yes, the different topics covered are not futuristic or hyped expectations, but what is happening in companies manufacturing printers today, what actually is going on in schools at different levels to adopt the technology into teaching curriculums, all the way to research at university level and beyond. It is important to remember that the technology of 3D printing has developed over more than two decades, and has reached a level of maturity where it can be taken seriously. However, it is still in its infancy, i.e., there is much more to come.
Somehow I combined reading "Fabricated the New World of 3D Printing" together with Christopher Barnatt's "3D Printing - The Next Industrial Revolution". To my astonishment each book, published in 2013, cross referenced the other.
The authors of "Fabricated the New World of 3D Printing" point out that there are barriers to progress: the 3D printing technology has advanced way beyond what the supporting technology can deliver.
- the file format used to represent the geometric shapes sent to a 3D printer, STL, is an old format with limited capabilities. The format can only represent one colour shapes, and to represent complex shapes accurately, transfer files become very large and time consuming to process, both to write and to read. The format itself is prone to errors resulting in crashes and wasted raw material and time.
As a consequence, a whole industry has grown up to correct and verify correctness in STL files prior to sending them to 3D printers. An STL replacement is well overdue, and a new standard for geometry representation for 3D printing has been adopted as an international standard in March 1 2012.
As Prof Hod Lipton (who is a driving force behind the development of the new file format, AMF - Additive Manufacturing Format) points out, widespread implementation of software for processing files in AMF-format is on the critical path for support of new printing technology.
- more alarming though is the lack of software to create geometric shapes capable of exploiting the new functionality of 3D printers. Traditional solid modellers focus on the exterior of shapes (boundary representation solid modellers) and know nothing about the interior of a shape. Hence, all shapes are made from homogeneous materials (same material properties across every and all profiles).
The challenge to the supporting technology industry must be to address these discrepancies by developing more advanced modelling tools and hence reduce the gaps that are opening up between the geometry definition software and the 3D printers. Right now, the gaps are widening.
If you want to know more, the book has references to further reading, and of course you can Google "STL" and "AMF" and go to Wikipedia to start harvesting information of what is actually going on right now in this respect. There are rich opportunities to improve the technology in a fundamental way, both in research and in software development.
The book presents a number of applications of 3D printing that are experimental and in their infancy, fascinating uses of technology in the novelty category.
However, the fact that it can be done, doesn't mean that it is worth doing. Case in point: In "Back to the Future II" the mum puts a little disk of food (a pizza) into a magical machine that in seconds turns it into a large full pan, steaming hot, ready to eat pizza.
This was a prediction of what the future will bring (as of 2015) back in 1989 when the film was released. Where are we now with pizza making? We still order pizza delivered to our door or we enjoy each other's company around the kitchen table while we make our own homemade pizza.
Making food is a social occasion and the process is valuable in its own right. The explosive interest in food making programs on TV is an attest to this. Now, put a 3D printer in the kitchen that can print you a large pepperoni pizza in, say, 5 hours flat. Is it worth doing?
I, for one, do not believe that food printing is the killer application that will transform our lives to the better. Having said that, there are changes coming our way, changes we don't even know about as yet, (ref. texting on mobile phones, the world wide web, the success of tablets at the expense of traditional PCs and lap tops ...). The killer app for 3D printing is still to be discovered.
A last thing: when I read chapter 10: "Unleashing the New Aesthetic" it suddenly struck me how inadequate the printed book is to present such fascinating material. I wanted to see the shapes and their uses as live pictures, images I could explore and manipulate as part of the document itself. The live pictures in newspapers in Harry Potter films are a step in the right direction, beyond this it would just be so nice to see and manipulate the examples as moving images in the text itself. Of course, a book can be digital these days, images can be video clips and text can be interspersed with pictures the reader can manipulate. So, to the publisher, when reprinting the book, make it an interactive experience to enjoy on a tablet.
In the meantime, the opportunity to get involved is right in front of you, explore the web-sites with examples of geometric shapes that others have made (the most relevant are all mentioned in the book) and buy a few shapes to find out what they are like. And better, buy yourself a printer to get started with what is possible today. The message from reading the book is clear, whatever you do in the future, you will do it with a 3D printer.