3D printing has popped up in science fiction for ages: recall the Star Trek crew materializing food in the microwave-like “replicator” or Neal Stephenson’s “matter compilers” in The Diamond Age. The appeal of creating whatever one wants at the simple press of a button excites the inventor in all of us. But, like most pined-for advances, the real-world technology trudges along with challenges and limitations.
Despite a less awesome name (3D-printing sounds so boring), the current technology does offer some cool features already. 3D printing works, very generally, by depositing and shaping powder or liquid material (most often plastic) in layers to build a model based on a computer design. 3D printing has existed for decades in manufacturing but has only recently moved into the personal and hobbyist space, edging into mainstream consciousness and even local businesses, like this 3D printing store in Pasadena.
Fused deposition modeling, as made popular by Makerbot, is a common method currently used by home hobbyists. This type of 3D printer deposits layers of material by heating plastic material and shaping it along X and Y coordinates. Other methods use lasers and photosensitive material to create models.
While there are several barriers to desktop 3D printing (primarily cost, soon-to-expire patents and materials), the tech promises a revolution in manufacturing where anyone can make custom items to satisfy a need or whim. Once the technology is more affordable, the imagination is, as the cliché goes, the limit. With the ability to turn the hoi polloi into inventor-sculptor-innovators, “custom” will no longer be associated with expense and luxury.
In NPR’s “3-D Printer Brings Dexterity to Children With No Fingers,” two collaborators use 3D printing to create prosthetics:[youtube http://youtu.be/kB53-D_N8Uc]
While out of the hobbyist realm, a printed liver is just the beginning of bioengineered possibilities:[youtube http://youtu.be/9RMx31GnNXY]
Printing chocolate made headlines in 2011, and since, NASA has requested a pizza 3D printer and others have proposed ending world hunger with food printers with cartridges of insect-based powder. Yum?
The Dark Side of 3D Printing
At the other end of the spectrum from healing, 3D printing has also inspired a movement around printing workable guns. This raises questions of accountability and control http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/03/26/3d-printed-gun-movement_n_2957695.html?utm_hp_ref=technology&utm_hp_ref=technology. While not inherently problematic for hobbyists, being able to replicate weapons or devices to steal, like keys or ATM readers, is already a problem (see PC World’s “Criminals Find New Uses for 3D Printing“).
There is also a potential for those using the technology to be harmed. A recent study proposed that particles emitted from 3D printers could have harmful effects (“3D printers shown to emit potentially harmful nanosized particles“).
Like any new transformative technology, we’ll discover more pitfalls and surprises as it advances over time. Since the technology already exists and the only current major barrier is cost and soon-to-expire patents, 3D printing will move out of the realm of expensive hobbyists and more into the mainstream.