THE revolution will not be televised, but it might be printed. Once the plaything of car and aerospace companies, 3D printers are becoming more affordable, allowing anyone to make everything from door knobs, jewellery, beer opening iPhone holders, and even guns.
The printers, which cost about $2000, take a data file of a 3D object and build it layer by layer.
3D printing: a world of possibilities
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3D printing: a world of possibilities
Once only available to high tech manufacturers and engineers, 3D printing has now become an accessible and creative tool.
''It's sort of like having a hot glue gun,'' said Rob Ward from 3D Printing Australia, a popular web forum. ''Pull in a piece of plastic filament, melt it, then draw the part.''
Until now the plastic used in consumer-level printers has left bumps and bubbles on an object's surface.
But a group of graduates from Massachusetts Institute of Technology recently released the Form 1, which sells for about $3000 and uses a laser to draw on a liquid plastic resin that hardens under a specific wavelength of light. The laser then draws and hardens each layer at a time.
''It's going to be a step up in technology but bringing it back down into that consumer price bracket,'' Mr Ward said.
An industrial design lecturer at Monash University, Mark Richardson, said resin models were best for prototypes, whereas plastic was better if ''real parts'' were wanted. Advanced printers using materials like titanium are capable of even more.
One researcher used lasers to make a replica of London's Tower Bridge the size of a speck of dust, and the University of Southern California is using massive printers to build houses from concrete.
Earlier this month a US company seized the 3D printer it had leased to a University of Texas law student, Cody Wilson, after he raised $20,000 online with the aim of designing and printing a working pistol. He wanted to share the plans online, allowing anyone with a 3D printer to circumvent gun laws.
The barrel would melt after just one shot but the student said the goal was not personal armament. ''It's more the liberation of information,'' he said in a YouTube video, ''it's about living in a world where you just download the file for the thing you want to make.''
Sean Casey, an adviser with the National Broadband Network, said 3D printing would lead to manufacturing becoming more niche. ''The new trend may be towards really customised products,'' he said.
The design firm Nervous System lets customers alter the shape and pattern of bracelets and rings before they are 3D printed and sent in the mail, so consumers can have products custom-made to their needs.
Or they can do it themselves.
''Instead of having to spend six to eight weeks to get a car part, I can get the file and go produce it myself,'' Mr Casey said.
But Mr Ward said traditional plastic injection moulding was still cheaper for the vast majority of manufacturers, and 3D printers were not yet a silver bullet.
''They are not magic machines and if they are, they are half-million-dollar machines,'' he said.
Marinos Drake, an industrial design student, recently bought a $2000 printer with a friend. While some students pay up to $10,000 to have each model made professionally, Mr Drake said he now had a reusable tool for other projects.
Using a $60 video camera with reading glasses strapped to the front and some freely downloadable software, he and fellow student Rowan Page made plastic models of their heads.
''It was pretty awesome,'' Mr Page said. ''Anyone with a little bit of basic knowledge can learn to scan their own head and 3D print it in a day.''
He said scanning was an alternative for those less comfortable using design software on a computer.
''You could work with papier-mache or fragile materials but then replicate it out of plastic.'' Mr Page said. ''Pairing the two technologies you get a 3D photocopier.''