IF YOU thought 3D printing was all about new body and illegal weapon parts, then think again.

Since he opened up his Southbourne print store in February last year, Mike Beaman has made the Eiffel Tower and a T-Rex ("not life-size, obviously!”), a toothbrush holder shaped like a giant molar, a Star Wars mask, and copies of old iron toppings for some Victorian railings.

He designed and produced a towel hook for this bathroom (“It seemed easier to design one than buy it”), a model of his own shop, and after breaking the cup attachment for his office curtain rail, printed out one of those.

In one week recently, he's been asked to make a reproduction of a valuable bust and he’s already managed to make a Morris Minor owner’s day by printing him the retro, raised number plate letters to complete a restored car. “A friend of the man’s had seen the shop and suggested he came in here,” says Mike. “We were delighted to help him and he was thrilled because he couldn’t get the letters anywhere.”

He produces lifelike mini-statues (“Families like to put them on birthday cakes, or send them to relatives in Australia”) but his main work comes from designing and producing components and prototypes for the many engineers and entrepreneurs who are based in the Bournemouth and Poole conurbation. “If you want, say, 100 of something, or just one, 3D printing is usually a whole lot cheaper than going for injection moulding,” he says.

Confidentiality prevents him from discussing much of the work he’s asked to do: “People often want a prototype of something they may be hoping to patent one day,” he says, but he’s already become well-known in his area, helping a nearby shopkeeper with a component for his burglar alarm and becoming the object of much interest from the schoolchildren that wander past his shop.

Which is just what he hoped for.

“I wanted to have a shop, somewhere people could come in and actually see the quality and variety of the work we do and they can have a proper conversation with me about their ideas,” he says.

He believes this is important because the concept of 3D printing can be difficult to explain, unless you can see it happening.

Put simply, the heated powder substance from which a model or component is being made comes out of a nozzle which travels round and round on its computer-set pattern, building everything up, layer by layer, like courses of bricks on a new building.

Some items are designed by Mike via a computer programme, others, such as the statues, are produced after scanning with a harmless laser beam.

A highly-qualified design engineer, Mike can see no end to the potential uses for this technology. “And the best thing is that our customers are now beginning to understand that, too,” he says.