Fab Labs go 3D

9 July 2013
By Ralph Adam
Plastic gun

Kitchen firearms: producing a working gun with just a 3D printer, nails and some household screws.

The £16 gun: Plastic firearm you can make at home from household items is created by 3D printer.

That is how a newspaper headlined its report of a recent YouTube video by a US engineer who had produced a working gun with just a 3D printer, nails and some household screws. The article referred to the ‘fears’ of police and other public authorities that anyone with a copier might manufacture their own firearms, creating fear on the streets. The resultant media excitement led journalists to buy a cheap printer, make their own gun from easily-available plastic parts, ‘smuggle’ it on to a London-to-Paris train, pass undetected through border controls and, on arrival, assemble a working gun in around 30 seconds.

Fearsome stuff. Successful use of a gun is, of course, far more complicated than putting a few bits of plastic together, but this illustrates how much easier 3D technology has made amateur manufacturing: 3D has moved far from teenagers wearing awkward-looking spectacles in gloomy cinemas.

The process, also known as ‘additive manufacturing’, has been used in industry since the 1980s: a three-dimensional solid object is created from a digital model by adding ultra-thin layers of material.

The arrival of small, powerful and cheap printers has heralded a whole new industry. 3D printers eliminate waste, need little or no attention and by printing interlocking parts, reduce or even eliminate the need for assembly. They are especially useful for producing one-offs or short production runs as they can create objects with geometries and internal complexities that traditional factory machines cannot match.

While the technology is labour-intensive and best-suited to the manufacture of small, niche items or prototypes, it is ideal for small workshops or amateurs. Designers can try out new, fun ideas quickly.

This is something that has been adopted enthusiastically by the Fab Lab (digital fabrication laboratories) movement. Neil Gershenfeld of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology came up with the idea of providing locally the environment, expertise, advanced materials and digital technology for non-specialists (entrepreneurs, students, artists, small businesses - indeed, anyone with an innovative idea) to make things cheaply and quickly. Fab Lab typically provides a 3D printer, laser cutter and milling machine plus programming tools.

So successful has the idea become that, in March 2013 the US Congress introduced the National Fab Lab Network Act to promote advanced manufacturing and make technology such as 3D printing more easily available. Fab Labs are ideal for developing countries and have crossed the globe: giving people the power and facilities to make almost anything suiting their needs. The UK’s first Fab Lab opened in Manchester in March 2010.To date, over 3,000 small manufacturers, inventors, schools and community groups have benefited from the Lab’s materials which range from cardboard to silicon.

Even more innovative, however, has been the Belfast Lab which, in a tough part of the city, works with volunteers, children and NEETs (young people not employed or in education or training), encouraging an interest in engineering and manufacturing. That is the real value of 3D technology.

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