When first encountering a 3D printer, any sense of scepticism that an industrial revolution could be standing before you should be quickly forgiven, writes Alexander Speirs.

In what could only be attributed to deliberate irony and someone's wry sense of humour, the machines, which are layer-by-layer creating more complex and intricate structures than ever thought possible, are remarkably bland and unimpressive.

With the appearance of a quirky bar fridge or an overgrown microwave, they'd be far more at home in the kitchen than on the set of Star Trek.

3D printing or additive manufacturing, is not all too dissimilar from the regular printers most of us interact with every day. Much like a normal inkjet printer, 3D printers work by printing an extremely thin layer of material.

Although instead of ink the printers typically use plastic resin. More complex machines however can use a plethora of materials, from metals and glass to sugar and chocolate.


Instead of stopping at a single layer like a paper printer, 3D printers continue to print layer by layer on top of the previous layer to create three dimensional structures.

Like traditional 2D printing, 3D printers are controlled by computers which interpret the designs and instruct the printers how to create the structure.

Instead of documents or pictures though, the designs are modelled in computer-aided design software packages.

Researchers at Washington State University have printed replacement bones for patients in both orthopedic and dental procedures. Nasa unveiled a printer late last year that used dehydrated ingredients that last for 30 years to literally print a pizza.

Scientists in California are working on technology that will be able to 3D print entirely custom, multi-levelled houses in under 24 hours.

The possibilities are endless.

The variety of implementations of 3D printers is impressive for a technology not far removed from its infancy.

Doctors have used 3D printers to model organs from a patients CT scans to practice for complex surgeries and prepare for any hiccups prior to opening a patient up.