Wednesday, 24 April 2013

3D without the headaches

I am not a great fan of 3D movies. The 3D glasses are a pain when you wear your own specs, and the effects generally give me a headache while rarely seeming convincing. You won't see me rushing to buy a 3D TV any time soon either.

However there is a very different side to 3D that I think has huge potential - 3D printing. When I visited the Dyson research centre with BBC Wiltshire one of the outstanding aspects was the way they made trial spare parts for their vacuum cleaners using 3D printers. But it is a very new area to most of us, which is why I appreciated having the chance to take a look at Chris Winnan's book. This provides a detailed overview of the state of play of 3D printing for the rest of us (as opposed to the Dysons of this world) and gives some very interesting thoughts on the way this market will develop.

Winnan suggests, I think absolutely correctly, that at the moment we are in the same state with home 3D printing as they were with the 'homebrew' microcomputers before the mass market off-the-shelf products - first the likes of Commodore 64 and Sinclair Spectrum and now the ubiquitous PCs and Macs - came along. So yes, at the moment, domestic scale 3D printers don't look like real products - but I have little doubt that they will and standards will arise.

Something else Winnan spends a lot of time on is how these printers can be used for fun and profit. After all, there is no point having a printer unless you need to print something, whether in 2D or 3D. This is an area that really gets the reader thinking. Some users will be designers using the 3D printer to produce artworks and models (one big example Winnan uses is all the miniatures bought by sci-fi enthusiasts), just as digital artists print their products now - but this is not the mass market. For the rest of us it is much more likely that we will print spare parts to replace broken bits (yes, even of Dysons), and will print new items other people have designed - so, for instance, instead of waiting for an object to come from Amazon in the post, you would download it to print, just as you now download an MP3 file. I suspect we would also print from scans, whether professionally done or cobbled together from phone camera software, just as phone can now generate quite sophisticated panoramic photos. (Imagine, for instance, a 3D model of your child's hand as a baby, complete with those tiny fingernails. Not my cup of tea, but I suspect it would be quite popular.)

As an ebook, 3D Printing has pros and cons. There's lots in it, and it really makes you think - but it's rather messily put together and you will probably find that you need to skip through pages of detail that aren't necessary to get the message. Having said that, though, the book is extremely well priced and very informative.

A few years ago I would have said 3D printers were valuable in R&D, but wouldn't find their way into the home any time soon. Chris Winnan has persuaded me otherwise and I, for one, can't wait.

Find out more with the book 3D Printing: the next technology gold rush available from Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk.

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