The world of Star Trek is almost upon us. We now possess personal communicators, talking computers and soon every household may possess a replicator in the form of a 3D printer. And while warp drive and phasers may be a ways off, 3D printers may usher in another technological revolution. They do sound like the stuff of science fiction: one day soon you may simply download, or create yourself, the specs for countless different items, which a printer can print at home, in the office or at the worksite. As with any technology, it’s impossible to foresee the unpredictable directions people will take it as the technology progresses; witness the recent controversy when a group offered specs allowing a 3D printer to create an operable plastic handgun. Here are five thoughts and observations about the future of 3D printing.
5. 3D Printing Has Been Around Much Longer Than You Think
Although most people have never seen a 3D printer in action, you may already own products created by the process. 3D printing has been around in industrial applications since the late 1970s. A 3D printer uses an additive process whereby successive layers of material are built up to form an object. The printer, which operates similar to ink-jet technology, uses a three-dimensional, computer-aided design (CAD) model or similar software to form its creation. Of course, the raw material is still required, and at this stage only relatively simple objects or tools can be created. Materials vary from laminates to plastic polymers, though research has been conducted with more exotic materials. The future will bring more incredible advances — imagine a large, industrial 3D printer with cement-filled injectors that could create a customized building, one layered block at a time. 3D printing may even release us from our current “mass market culture,” as everything is custom-created for its intended application.
4. The Possibilities For 3D Printing Are Seemingly Limitless
3D printing offers great potential for the manufacturing industry beyond what has already been done. The process also holds great promise for use in remote locations such as Antarctica or where troops are deployed. The International Space Station is receiving its first delivery of a 3D printer in 2014. Imagine a future colony on the Moon or Mars created by an array of 3D printers, using the soil and materials on hand to create a form of cement. Some biotechnology firms are studying more exotic uses, such as the 3D printing of new human organs by building up layers of cells in a sugar matrix. Other companies are already creating customized skin prosthetics and skin and bone grafts. It likely won’t be long before 3D-printed human implants such as pins and ball sockets are the norm. CandyFab, a variant of 3D printing, uses granulated sugar as a medium, and it’s not a stretch to imagine that 3D printing of foodstuffs may make its way into kitchens everywhere. Ironically, confectionaries and pet food may be ideally suited for this. Will we all soon be eating food-dyed, 3D-printed versions of Soylent Green?
3. 3D Printers Pose Potential Risks
What the Internet has done for convenience, 3D printers may make doubly so. And just as you can find instructions on the Internet detailing how to make bombs or weapons, you may soon be able to make a weapon with a 3D printer as well. U.S. government officials expressed alarm in May 2013 when a group announced plans to release specs on how to make a plastic handgun using a 3D printer. Apparently, you only have to add a nail for a firing pin (the only non-printable part). Imagine a future where convicted felons can print guns in the privacy of their own home, bypassing all laws and safety checks. If 3D printing becomes pervasive, it may also fill our homes and landfills with yet more plastic trash we don’t truly need. Then there’s the issue of counterfeiting and copyright: how will companies maintain control of their intellectual property? Laws typically struggle to keep pace with new technologies, whether it is the Internet, mobile phones or the latest tech set to hit the market this year, Google Glass. 3D printing will pose its own issues as well.
2. Many Services Offer 3D Printing For Hobbyists and Other Uses
Want a customized action figure … of yourself? Several companies already provide such a service online, and you may soon be able to print one yourself at home. It remains to be seen if 3D printers will go the way of the 8-track tape, or be the greatest thing to happen to printing since Guttenberg. But as is often the case, tinkerers and hobbyists will be the early adopters leading the way. An analogy can be drawn from the evolution of the flatbed scanner. In the 1980s, magazines like Popular Mechanics offered do-it-yourself instructions to build a primitive, rotating-cylinder image-scanning device. A much more advanced flatbed version emerged on the market for less than $100 about a decade later. Replicating Rapid Prototypers such as the RepRap open-source project are already the rage among DIY hobbyists, much the way kit computers were in the early 1970s.
1. 3D Printers Are Relatively Expensive Now, But That Will Quickly Change
In May 2013, the office supply chain Staples became the first retailer to offer 3D printers. Expect to see the price trajectory fall as it did for CD/DVD players, VCRs and PCs as they became more prevalent. Early 3D printers cost around $20,000. Staples Cube 3D printer retails for $1,299 (cartridges are $50 each). However, the RepRap open-source project offers 3D kit machines in the $600 range. Of course, it’s yet to be seen if people will find a need for a 3D printer in their home or office. Remember, many people scoffed at the idea of a home computer in the 1960s … who would want a gigantic, vacuum-tubed, punch-card machine in their living room? It’s possible 3D printers will remain in the realm of industrial and specialized applications, but perhaps a cottage industry of local 3D printing businesses will emerge. Or, just maybe, we’ll see the next big technological revolution, as 3D printers become a permanent household fixture and change our lives in ways we cannot even imagine.