A mainstay of sci-fi since the genre began, the idea of being able to create your own objects at home is understandably quite fascinating. Who hasn’t dreamed of having their own replicator that makes cookies and tea on-demand? But do these dreams have any grounding in reality? What would the world be like if you could download the plans for a 3D object and make it at home?
Is 3d Printing Real?
Admittedly, the nano-tech based Replicator from Star Trek, able to create literally anything – is a long way off and remains firmly in fiction. However, 3D printing of objects is in fact already here, and has been for many years now.
Traditional manufacturing processes have revolved around either injection moulding or destructive techniques. ‘Destructive’ means you start with a large block and gradually carve away pieces of it – the aluminium Macbook shell being perhaps the most famous of recent times, but the concept was used with wood since the dawn of man.
Injection moulding is generally the preferred method for plastics though – once a perfect mould of the final object has been made, some molten plastic in injected into it and eventually forms solid. The process has the high initial cost of making a mould and specialised equipment that makes it highly suitable to mass-manufacturing and very unsuitable for home use.
A 3D printer on the other hand could mean that the same complicated objects could be made relatively easily and cheaply, perfect for at home or one-off prototyping.
Seriously, A 3D Printer?!
The idea is that as an alternative to costly mass-manufacturing processes, one-off models of a final product could simply be “printed”. A 3D printer works much the same as a regular printer, but instead of squirting out ink onto a page, it would squirt out a layer of material, then another layer, then another – until a complete 3D model had been produced. The theory is sound, but how about the reality?
In fact, 3D printers have been around for some time now, but still somewhat costly. Around $40,000 will net you a full colour commercial 3D printer from Z-Corporation, which uses coloured starch powders. Obviously, this is still somewhat out of reach to regular home users – but the principle is proven – 3D printing is indeed a reality.
You could write a book on the social implications of 3D printing (Cory Doctorow’s Makers novel is one suggestion I’m in the process of reading – and you can download it for free!), but I’ll try and summarise it in a few paragraphs.
Assuming it is possible to bring the costs of 3D printing down, it could have a profound impact on many aspects of society. Some have described it as having your “own little Chinese factory in your home“. If you needed a little plastic widget, you wouldn’t have to go out and buy one – you could just print one.
There’s also massive environmental advantages to not having to transport truckloads of silly plastic widgets around the globe, so the overall environmental overhead of manufacturing could be decreased as production is localised to the community. If the plastic used can also be made recyclable, then truly we would have a revolution.
Although it would undoubtedly mean a loss of manufacturing jobs, I can also envision new businesses being formed that sell the “plans” to make an object, rather than selling the object themselves. These would be digital downloads, and presumably some bright-spark would invent a kind of DRM, in which the objects could only be “printed” once or 5 times. Then of course, we would have a whole new section to torrent sites as well – pirate object models to download!
How about rapid distribution of the latest object? Instead of waiting months to have something designed and mass-produced, then marketed and shipped to the world, product designers might just release their plans into the wild, and within minutes they could be produced the world over.
One final point to leave you thinking is that the very nature of a 3D printer means that it should in theory be able to self-replicate the majority of its own parts – so if it can print plastic objects, then any plastic objects used in its construction should be producible using itself. Frankly, it’s mind blowing, and once the initial seed machines are made, the growth rate would increase exponentially, and prices plummet even further.
That’s it for now, but next time I’ll be taking a closer look at both the RepRap and MakerBot projects, both of which are sub-$1000 3D-printer projects that you can build yourself. Yes, I’ve been speaking in very theoretical terms in this article today, but the fact is that these projects are already out there, and thousands of active members around the globe are contributing to their development as you read this.
I’ll also be taking a look at a community driven website that is making open-sourced 3D models available to download and print on your own 3D printer! Stay tuned. In the meantime, feel free to post in the comments about profound changes you think this could have on societies – or do you think 3D printing is a fad, destined for the same landfill as 3D TVs?