Meet the printer that can print your car parts

In Star Trek, the Starship Enterprise came equipped with a replicator able to rustle up a glass of whiskey - or whatever else its user fancied - at the touch of a button.

The closest we can get to that today are 3D printers: devices capable of creating solid, three-dimensional objects, from prosthetic limbs and miniature chess sets, to car and airplane parts.

One such 3D printer, made by a company called Electro Optical Systems, was on show at the Science Museum in London this week.

To create an object with the printer, a designer starts by drawing a 3D image using CAD software and saving it as a file that can be understood by the printer. Software on the printer then divides the image into multiple, super-thin layers.

A layer of powder, made out of either plastic, metal or sand, is then deposited in a container inside the printer. A laser in the top of the machine traces the outline of the base of the 3D image onto the powder, as seen on the next page. The laser's movements are precisely controlled to match the shape of the 3D image stored in the printer's memory and the heat from the laser fuses the powder, forming the bottom of the object.

A fresh coating of powder is then deposited and the next tier of the image is etched by the laser, fusing the next layer of the shape. This process - known as laser sintering - is repeated, building layer upon layer, until the object is complete, with the printer able to build an object at a speed of 15mm per hour.

Click here to see a video of the printer in action.

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Author: Nick Heath

Photo credit: Electro Optical Systems