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3D replication is name of the game

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The humble print button is building a new world before our eyes

It is hard to think of things which won't be able to be produced through 3D printing in the future.

Houses, body parts, food, clothing, and all manner of everyday objects are now able to be printed using cutting-edge technology.

Just weeks ago doctors at a Belgian hospital scanned the badly-damaged jawbone of an elderly patient and fed the image through a 3D printer where a precision laser beam transformed fine titanium powder into a patient-specific implant.

Scientists in San Diego have broken new ground printing in ''organic material'' or live cells to create arteries and other tissues with an eye to printing organs such as kidneys and hearts. Inkjet cartridges spray live cells on to hydro gel, which forms a scaffolding for the cells to form on. It takes 24-48 hours for the cells to bond and become an organ.

In the ACT, universities are leading the way in utilising the technology for teaching and research, using 3D printers to make replicas of fossils, bones, all manner of biological and geological samples, design prototypes, sculptures, jewellery, mechanical and engineering parts.

Australian National University mathematics professor Tim Senden said advances in 3D printing were difficult to keep up with such was the infinite potential of the technology.

The proud owner of a $50,000 ''Z Printer 650'', Professor Senden said ''It's pop art and Andy Warhol all over again, it's just taking off around the world.

''We can make exact copies of rare objects for the masses at the push of a button.''

And according to Professor Senden, 3D printing can make the copies even ''better'' than the original. Take, for instance, the jaw bone of one of the world's oldest mammals which is so old, tiny and precious it is sealed up in the Museum of Victoria and not able to be breathed on, much less handled.

Using a scan of the original, Professor Senden has blown the size up tenfold, and cavalierly tosses now large and robust jawbone around enthusing palaeontologists who are blessed with rare access to such a pivotal specimen.

A distinction with drawing from X-ray scanned data for replicas is that hidden microscopic internal structures can be magnified and physically handled - breathing new life into old bones and artifacts.

''We are tactile beings, so there is nothing more liberating than being able to re-assemble a minute specimen too fragile to handle. And if only the left-hand side was found, we can flip the data and print a new right-hand.''

The Smithsonian Institute is doing its bit to widen access to valuable historic and prehistoric artifacts and artworks by printing copies for schools and museums around the world.

The ANU School of Art was among the first Australian universities to embrace 3D printing for design, modelling and sculpture back in 2001. While rapid prototyping, as it is called, is typically a manufacturing process, the co-ordinator of Design Arts, Gilbert Riedelbauch, said the technology also had aesthetic purposes in allowing artists to produce sculpture, create design casts and forge precious metals and jewellery in gold and silver.

With the printer now outdated and no longer operating, the Art School uses bureau services to produce prints - they email a data file to American and New Zealand-based printer services who post them back the finished product.

Mr Riedelbauch said 3D printing technology was so integral to design it was now a focus of learning within the academic program.

Professor Senden said in the near future, clothes would be a big focus of 3D printing as people could scan their own bodies for perfect made-to-measure outfits. Custom printed shoes would also become the norm.

He also nominated printing food as the next big designer industry.

''You could spray a food protein, like tofu, into any shape and texture you want and the flavours would be printed within the fabric - edible pop art if you like,'' he said.

For tofu-haters, you can already print in chocolate.

For engineers such as ANU Research School of Engineering professor Robert Mahony, 3D printing has allowed him to prototype professional quality robotic parts a hundred times faster than was possible before. Even concept design research robots can now be made properly, rather than the old approach that involved balsa wood, sticky tape, hot glue and string. Professor Mahony's $20,000 printer uses heated plastic and dissolvable support structure to print high-quality plastic components for snap locks and mounting points for his research in aerial robotics.

''There is a real joy in designing and printing out a 3D product - and they look and work a lot better than the sticky tape and string versions,'' he said.

University of Canberra senior lecturer in learning environment, Danny Munnerley, said 3D printing would change the way humans interacted with data in the physical world.

The technology would shift the future of commerce around the world, with 3D printers taking over current assembly line production processes.

He envisaged large printing hubs being set up with goods created and distributed at the push of a button.

''I think it will be a really straightforward process. You order something online, and they press the print button, create it, and post it back to you.''

At ADFA, the Engineering in Medicine group is investigating advances in scanning and replacing knee joints - which in the not-too-distant future will be able to be run off on a 3D printer.

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