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print me 3D

Last night I went to see a Hewlett-Packard Science Lecture on 3D Printing and Lattice Structures. The HP Science Lectures are held at their facility in Filton and usually occur 3-5 times a year and are free to attend, you simply have to register by email with the organiser. They have covered a diverse range of topics over the years, ranging from Earth Sciences to Creationism to Microbiology to the LHC. Indeed, the latter talk on the Large Hadron Collider (by a former director of the project) remains one of my absolute favourite lectures.

Last night's talk on 3D Printing (otherwise known as Additive Manufacturing) & Lattice Structures was delivered by Dr Siavash Mahdavi. It covered a range of subjects, starting with a brief over-view of what 3D Printing is, moving on to the various applications for this technology, from the mechanical to the medical, as well as looking at consumer products. Future uses were also used, from the creation of specific tooling to on demand customisation to ongoing medical developments (3D print a biological organ, anyone?).

One of the exciting adjacent technologies (developed by Dr Mahdavi) for me was the creation of software that allows the artificially intelligent design of parts to fulfil a set of criteria through the use of evolutionary algorithms. The software simply evolves designs to meet the requirement, with often beautifully organic results.

What was evident from this talk was the sheer breadth of applications that this technology could  be used for, from consumer customisation, to on the doorstep delivery (design a custom unique vase in Bristol, print it in New York, your friend picks it up). The complexity of the designs, most of which cannot be duplicated by current methods of production, allows both targeted application and yet a broad range of targets within the one unit, by dint of varying lattice structural design (thick and dense here, thinner and more pliable here).

I learnt that 480,000,000,000 paper cups are thrown away in the USA and Western Europe every year, simply because they are coated in a waterproof plastic film. 3D technology has allowed the design of a tool/mould that forces the paper pulp into such a shape (at the microscopic level) that its surface is automatically waterproof. The paper cup is therefore completely recyclable.

The waste of current manufacturing techniques is immensely costly, as in the main they are deductive technologies, whereas 3D Printing is additive, with any unused materials simply used for the next item.

The medical applications were immense, from skull plates custom formed to the shape of your skull, with designed porosity that allows the bone cells to knit and mesh with the plate itself, to hip bone cups and fingerbone implants.

All in all it was a very enjoyable, intriguing and fascinating 40 minute talk. As a bit of a techie geek, and a writer of science-fiction, the possibilities were immense.

One of the other benefits of surviving such an interesting ordeal was this:

Yes, you get fed, and how enjoyable is that? Very.

Into Dust