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Printing 3D

I just dropped my mobile phone and the outer casing has broken. What do I do?

Probably go to the suppliers and check if they can encase my phone in a new body - not a cheap or easy task. The new casing costs almost a fourth of the price of the phone.

Exact replacement

Your spectacle frame has cracked. It is difficult to find the exact replacement, which will take the place of the same costly and well-worn pair of glasses. You are forced to compromise and order the nearest fit. Theses are the scenarios of yesterday and today. Now take a peak at tommorow -- not sometime in the distant future, but later this year:

You 'capture' the shape of an object - like a mobile phone case or a spectacle frame -- using special softare; then you turn on your 3-D printer, which looks exactly like your normal laser printer, only slightly larger.

You ensure that its 'printing' medium -- not ink in a cartridge but one filled with finely powdered plastic -- is adequate; you press 'print' on your PC -- and a new phone case or whatever, is created slowly, layer by layer, in front of your eyes. It dries in seconds and is ready to use -- may be after some sand papering to smooth the edges.

Congratulations, you have entered the era of three-dimensional (3D) printing.

Desktop Factory, a spin-off from the US based IdeaLab, promises that by end 2007, it will offer a consumer model of its 3D printer for under $5,000. IdeaLab's technology makes use of a halogen lamp to heat powdered plastic that adheres to a roller and a focused laser beam to fuse it, to form a one dimensional image of the object required.

Thus far the process is very similar to the way an image is fused in a laser printer. The 'image' is rolled on to a plate and prints as a layer, much as it would on paper in a normal printer.

Now is where 2D becomes 3D. The process is repeated again and again, depositing more layers, stacking one on top of another, in the 3rd dimension, to form the solid object. Heat is applied again to fuse all the layers into a single object.

Remember how one made paper mash items in school, by pasting layers of soaked and gummed paper on a mould to create bowls and vases?

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