Entire books can be (and have been) written about 3d-printing, so I’m not going to go into too much detail or history or technicalities. You know how it works, right? A machine extrudes a liquid substance that solidifies on contact with air, layer by layer, to form a solid shape. Any shape you want. The materials most used are plastic and metal, but increasingly with other stuff (ceramics, wax, edibles…).
Technically, 3d printing is not a new technology. We have been tinkering with the possibilities since the late 1980s. What’s happening now, though, is interesting: it’s fast approaching critical mass. More and more people, both scientists and hobbyists, are tinkering with the technology. More and more businesses are producing the machines and the materials that feed them. More and more distribution networks are appearing and growing. It’s getting cheaper, more accessible and definitely more talked about.
The implications are huge. Huge. Entire sectors will change the way they operate, the logistics, the supply chains, even the nature of client demand…
For engineering: imagine being able to print working prototypes of machines in a question of hours rather than days, at a cost of hundreds of dollars, if that, rather than thousands… Invention will accelerate. Tinkering will be encouraged. Processes can be made more efficient, faster. Maintenance and service will become cheaper, we can print replacement parts on demand. Inventory needs and costs will come down, which will impact profitability and real estate values.
(image from Evill Design)
For medicine: I won’t go into the “printing” of body parts here, because that is a staggering concept that deserves serious consideration (yes, really, it is possible to print body parts!). In fact, the impact on the medical field in general has so much potential. Think prosthetics on demand, made to fit. Casts, 3d-printed to snugly fit your broken limb. Implants, produced faster and cheaper. Hearing aids made according to the exact shape of your ear.
Even for mundane retail: do you need a new cooking spoon? Print one. A new comb? Press the button. True, it will probably always be cheaper to buy everyday mass-produced items at the store, but for more out-of-the-ordinary items, or, say, a fancy comb with a beautiful shape, we could well end up using the 3d printer that’s sitting on the kitchen counter. And that’s without going into the joy that designing and producing gives (those of you who have tried it, you know what I mean).
3d-printing will revolutionise the fashion and jewellery industries. Imagine being able to print what you want to wear. You create the design, load it into the machine, and out pops your new bracelet or even T-shirt. You can print shoes designed for the exact shape of your foot, in any colour and with any add-on that you wish. No longer will you have to worry about someone else wearing the exact same fascinator, brooch or even hat to your cousin’s wedding.
Food? Yes, serious advances are being made in 3d-printed food. I can’t say that it sounds very appealing, but the lack of food preparation waste has a certain appeal in, say, spaceships. And it’s getting creative: some chefs are experimenting with innovative presentations and textures of our favourite flavours. 3d printers can create the most intricate sugar shapes you can imagine. Chocolate decorations. And as for the hardware: imagine being able to create cookie cutters or cake moulds in absolutely any shape you want! I’m not sure why, but for some time now I’ve been hankering for a cookie cutter in the shape of the Empire State Building…
(images from Phillips Design)
But what has all this got to do with you? It’s important because you will probably one day 3d-print. True, right now the printers are beyond the typical household budget. A decent desktop-sized machine costs approximately $2000 (down from about $20,000 four years ago!). But, as with practically all machines these days, the price is coming down fast. You can now get a very basic desktop-sized printer for under $400, and I imagine they will continue to get cheaper still. The Peachy Printer, which has supposedly just started shipping, costs $100. The feedback is not out yet, I doubt that the output is of the quality you would want for your sister’s Christmas present, but it’s a start…
And the printers are becoming easier to get, you can now order them online (Amazon has a wide range, ranging from $500 to $3000, or £400 to £2,500). The RepRap project is working on a 3d printer that can print 3d printers… Not joking.
Apart from cost, another barrier is skill. Most of us don’t have experience with 3d design software. But that barrier is at best temporary. Our familiarity with creating models on computers will continue to advance, and easy-to-use software will become more common. Sketchup, for instance, is free, relatively simple, and fun to use (my daughter and I have had fun designing a model city).
And who says you have to design your own stuff? If you would rather tinker with a design already configured, you can download one from Thingiverse (owned by printer manufacturer Makerbot), which provides a platform for designers to share their creations with anyone. Use it, change it, they’re copyright free for now, and a useful resource for newcomers and experienced designers. Or Cubify, or Fab@home.
Once you have your design figured out, how to you get it made? Well, you can buy yourself a printer (I am so tempted!), or you can upload it to any one of a number of 3d printing websites, and your product will be delivered to you in a few days. Shapeways, i.materialise.com, kraftwurx.com will all produce and ship your product, and some platforms are developing communities of designers, printers and customers.
For now these sites seem to be mainly catering for jewellery and accessories. But other fun categories include games, toys and miniatures. Little figures of you? Cute! Or creepy, maybe…Star Trek figurines with your face? Um, right… Your Minecraft avatar in physical form? My daughter would love that…
The fun part of 3d printing is important, but perhaps not quite so much as the impact this technology will have on, well, technology itself, specifically engineering. With 3d printing it is now possible to make things that we couldn’t before, such as seamless moving parts within seamless moving parts, multi-layered shapes, new types of components… Maybe we don’t yet know what these new forms can be used for, but we will.
Yes, 3d printing is currently the media darling of the tech scene. Journalists and readers alike gawp at the amazing things these machines can do, even though we know that the applications are as yet not very practical. So is it all hype, are we going to get tired of the much-talked about possibilities? No, I don’t think so. Because I’m certain that the hype is a bit understated. I don’t have a 3d printer (yet), so I have not yet experienced the frustration of blocked nozzles, faulty designs and limited filament supply. But I am sure that these obstacles, along with the cost barrier, will be overcome. We’re relatively new at this, but advancing fast. Once the demand reaches a certain mass, the supply chains, production costs, and support will become more efficient. And then we can start to see how 3d printing changes retail, industry, entertainment and even education. And it will happen within the next few years. It’ll be fun to watch.
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For more on 3d printing, check out my Flipboard magazine “3d printing”: