The other day, Dan Rodricks and I had a chance to talk about 3-D printing on his radio show. I was explaining some of the revolutionary things being done with this new technology, and I lost track of the number of times Dan said, “Wow.” A 3-D printer is essentially an inkjet printer, but instead of simply printing out fonts and images on a piece of paper, it prints three dimensional objects by laying down particles of a building material, usually plastic, and then laying down a layer of adhesive on top. It then prints another layer of building material, and another layer of adhesive and so on. Each layer is about the width of a human hair, and by building up layer after layer, it enables the user to create virtually any object.
3-D printing has the advantage of being faster than traditional manufacturing techniques and producing less waste. The other major advantage is that it’s more flexible. You don’t have to create new dies and processes to make a prototype or small run of a product. You simply design the desired object on a computer, using a computer aided design (CAD) program, and send the file to the printer. There are even shareware versions of the software and websites where you can share your designs with others. You don’t even need a printer. Several companies will take your design and print it for you for a fee.
Just like when computers were first developed, the original 3-D printers were large industrial machines with price tags in the tens of thousands of dollars. Recently, though, companies like MakerBot and Formlabs have started making 3-D printers for the home market. These new models are small enough to fit on a desktop, about the size of a laser printer, with prices comparable to laser printers too, ranging from a high of $1,500 to a low of under $500.
Home computers and the internet changed our world by decentralizing and democratizing information. There were no more gatekeepers to control information, and the results were often wonderful, sometimes dangerous and usually completely unpredictable. 3-D printers do the same thing for manufacturing. Gone are the gatekeepers. If you’re a budding young entrepreneur with a great idea, you no longer have to go through the trouble and expense of having a manufacturer (usually overseas) make your prototype. You can do it yourself. If you’re an artist, you can design and modify your creations on the computer, and have them the same day.
The biggest market for home 3-D printers may be hobbyists, members of the maker movement. You can print almost anything, including mechanical parts, miniatures and models, jewelry, dishes. You name it. If you haven’t been blessed with a standard hand, it’s difficult to find tools that you can use comfortably. Imagine being able to print out a tool that fits your hand like a glove. For that matter, imagine printing a glove that fits your hand like a glove is supposed to fit. There are companies using 3-D printers for making all sorts of clothing, from shoes to bathing suits customized for your exact body size and shape. No more dressing rooms; just modify the file on line and print it out in whatever color or pattern you like.
If this sounds like something out of the Jetsons or Star Trek, you ain’t seen nothing yet. The printers can use almost any substance that can be melted. There are chefs using 3-D printers to make intricate chocolate creations. Instrument makers turning out 3-D printed violins, 3-D printed smart phone cases, furniture, robots, and much more. Companies will make you all manner of customized toys and action figures, including one that will print you a personalized PEZ dispenser with your face on it. If that’s not personalized enough for you, a New York company will scan certain parts of you anatomy and print out customized adult toys. It’s a strange and brave new world.
The medical applications are even more futuristic. Surgeons have used 3-D printers to print replacement jaws and custom fitted prosthetic limbs. They’re even printing with living cells. Scientists have learned how to spray cells onto a flexible matrix to make functional blood vessels and ears. The Defense Advance Research Administration (DARPA) funded research into 3-D printers that could spray living skin cells directly onto burn victims. A number of researchers have predicted that within ten years, they may be able to print working organs like kidneys and livers.
Like any cutting edge technology, 3-D printers have both uses and abuses. If you have a product with a copyrighted design, it can now be pirated like a music CD. If the ownership of an item is tightly controlled or banned, now people have the option of simply printing one without the government’s knowledge. One company designed parts for a semiautomatic rifle for the 3-D printer and posted an open source version of the design on line. For the time being there isn’t much danger, since the prototype snapped in half after only six shots, but as printer materials continue to improve, all bets are off. Scientists are currently experimenting with using 3-D printers to come up with new chemical compounds. Can 3-D printed designer drugs be far behind?
3-D printing may currently be in its childhood, but as any parent can tell you, childhood is an often wonderful, sometimes horrifying, and always unpredictable. We survived when it happened with computers, and we’ll survive it with 3-D printers too, but life will never be the same. We’ll find uses we can’t even dream of now, that we won’t be able to imagine doing without 20 years from now. Whether we like it or not, the future is here, and it’s in 3-D.
Do you remember when I said that 3-D printed gun wasn’t a problem because it broke after 6 shots? Apparently they already fixed that little bug.