Thanks to lasers, 2014 will be a big year for 3D printing

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As always, patents are the only thing keeping excellent technology from being more pervasive. It’s true in the motor industry. It’s true in the medicine industry. And it’s true for the 3D printing industry, where a process called laser sintering is controlled by patents.

The current crop of homebrew and kit-based 3D printers are based on the extrusion process – or fused deposition modelling (FDM), to use the correct term. In this process a print head heats up a plastic filament – the 3D “ink – and deposits it onto a build tray. Everything moves around (either the print head or the tray, depending on the design of the printer) and the 3D object is built up, layer by layer, through the print head depositing melted filament.

Laser sintering also uses a layered approach – the fundamental principle of 3D printing relies on this – but instead of a filament, sintering uses a powder as a substrate. A very thin layer of powder is deposited on the build surface, and then a laser heats up that powder to solidify it. This gets repeated, again, for each layer, and the final model is built.

Which brings us to 2014: the year that most of the major laser sintering patents are set to expire. Just like FDM printers took off in the wake of those patents expiring, Mashable reports, sintering machines will flourish. We don’t expect an immediate influx of sub R10 000 machines to hit the market, because it’s still quite an expensive technology and the machines are complex, but with more people having access to it, there’s no telling what sort of ingenuity will surface.

And the biggest deal of all? Laser sintering machines can produce models that are a final product. While FDM machines are great for prototyping and hobbyist work, sintering can 3D print using metal dust, and thus produce a metal product – something that can immediately be used, sold, or sent into space.

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