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Hands on ... 3D printing

What is it?

A revolution in print manufacturing.

How will it change my life? Over the past week it feels like 3D printing has rarely been out of the news, from rap star Will.i.am's eco-friendly version which runs on recycled Coca-Cola bottles to Asda confirming plans for booths in its stores which will allow us to produce mini models of ourselves in what would appear to be the ultimate form of selfie.

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Then there was the gaudy 3D printed ladies' hat paraded at Royal Ascot and, in a far less frivolous application, a project to create prosthetic limbs for amputees as well as replacement joints for those with gammy knees and hips.

The International Space Station is set to take delivery of the first space-ready 3D printer in August (although it's perhaps a toss-up about whether the astronauts will be more excited about being able to run-off a new spanner at the flick of a switch or enjoy a hot beverage from the espresso machine which is also ISS-bound in the coming weeks).

The traditional method of printing involves putting down a dot of toner/ink on to a piece of paper and repeating the process until the source has been emulated and you have a complete 2D document. 3D printing works by dropping material on to material in layers which build up to create an object of your choice and is known as additive manufacturing. These objects can be created from computer software or a device similar to a CT scanner which can replicate another object by firing light beams against it to establish its dimensional shape.

Good points? We all wish we could recreate a broken remote control battery clip or door key at the touch of a button, and now we can. The possibilities are endless, not just with the objects that can be made: I must have bought countless everyday products over the years which could be printed in less time than it would take to go on the bus to the shops and back.

Shoes could be made to your precise foot measurements; jewellery could be tailored to a wrist or a finger. Most materials can be used and the only limitation on the object size is due to the capacity of the printer. You could print an entire house or aeroplane with moving parts from just one print job, reducing manufacturing costs and the use of any excess materials.

Bad points? While the coming months will see 3D printers flood the mainstream market with the budget end ranging from around £500, decent models for more intricate and detailed work are still pricy and somewhere in the £2000 bracket.

Best for … Those with boundless imagination. Why stop at a set of handlebars when you could print a whole bike?

Avoid if … You still yearn for simpler times when the dot matrix printer reigned supreme.

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