Ever since the mobile phone first made its appearance in Africa, the continent’s love for cutting-edge technology has known no bounds. But if the mobile made the impossible possible, there are even more technical miracles on the way. Richard Seymour describes how 3D printing is about to revolutionise the world and how Google’s latest invention is about to turn science fiction into fact.
In 1943, the chairman of IBM, Thomas Watson said, “I think there is a world market for maybe five computers.” As recently as 1981, Bill Gates, founder of Microsoft and formerly the wealthiest man in the world, said he saw no reason why anyone would need more than 640K capacity on a computer.
Therefore, while the idea of a 3D printer being in every home may seem far-fetched, it may not be very long before 3D printers clutter up our offices the way our printers do today: two on the desk and one gathering dust above a wardrobe.
Less snappily also known as additive printing, 3D printing has the potential to revolutionise business and industry and to liberate even the most disconnected markets.
Unlike most manufacturing processes which cut, drill and grind away excessive material, 3D printing adds layers of material in various shapes until a complete part or component is produced. 3D printers have been around for 30 years but the advance of digital technology and the Web have seen sales of units increase and their cost drop correspondingly. In 2010, a 3D printer would set you back $20,000, but can be yours now for less than $1,000.
Applications for the new technology are myriad. Medicine, agriculture, military, automotive, technology, engineering, fashion, architecture and aerospace are just some of the industries which can benefit from the new process. 3D printing technologies vary, but all have a number of essential aspects in common. Aside from the above description of layer being added to layer, you begin by downloading a digital file which contains the design for the object you want to print.
The next stage does vary. Among the different solutions is one where a melted substance is applied through a nozzle, building up the object in seamless layers. But whichever method is employed, you are left with either a prototype or the finished product that is ready to use.