x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

A technology not quite set to stun

The Life: 3D printers are being used to create plastic glasses and toys, and may even be harnessed to replicate dinosaur bones. The technology has interested businesses and universities, but is it ready for primetime among individual consumers?

An artificial jaw constructed through 3D technology. Yorick Jansens / AFP
An artificial jaw constructed through 3D technology. Yorick Jansens / AFP

Fans of the Star Trek TV and film series will want to call the device a "replicator", although for now, both they and non-Trekkies alike may want to stick with "3D printer."

This technology requires a person to feed it material such as polylactic acid, which is then heated and formed into items such as a plastic glass or containers.

It has been predominantly used by businesses to ensure new designs are produced in-house rather than sent out to pricey fabrication facilities.

Companies in the global power tools market, biomedical sector and after-sales automotive repair industry are also potential buyers within the 3D printer market, where sales are expected to remain less than US$200 million (Dh734.6m) this year.

3D printers could become popular among private consumers this year, as prices drop below $1,000 for some models, according to a technology report released last month by the consultancy Deloitte.

Fancy owning a "fossil"? Paleontologists at Drexel University in the US plan to replicate dinosaur bones using a computer scanner and 3D printer. A six-inch bone would take a few hours to print off, according to news reports.

But there are plenty of drawbacks with this gadgetry for individual buyers.

First, 3D printers are heavy - and expensive. The BFB 3000, which weighs almost 37kg and is pitched for the home, office or classroom, at $4,449 through the retailer Amazon.com. The British manufacturer, Bits From Bytes, claims it can transform drawings from what is known as CAD software into product prototypes, models and trinkets such as small toys. Companies such as Dimension and Objet offer multiple kinds of 3D printers.

But the cost of materials some models may need to create products, including running shoes, remains expensive.

"3D printing has caught the attention of the public but the hype around the technology does not recognise the severe limitations of the concept," warns Deloitte's report. "Anyone expecting the era of the Star Trek 'replicator' may have to wait awhile yet."


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