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is 3d printing realA 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.

is 3d printing real


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.

Social Implications

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.

3d printing hoax


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.

is 3d printing real

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?

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  1. Fik_of_Borg
    September 1, 2011 at 3:07 pm

    I'm sure most readers already thought this analogy: "personal" computers were almost a joke in the early 70's, a reasonable concept in the 80's and almost inconceivable NOT to have one in the 90's. I'm sure that personal 3D printing will be here faster.

  2. James Bruce
    September 1, 2011 at 7:36 am

    Thanks Duann, I'm afriad I missed that site in next weeks practical projects round-up too, but it's fantastic. 

    Absolutely must buy these deathly hallows dice:

    It looks like they even use a variety of materials and different printing systems - the detail on those objects could never be done with the makerbot or similar I dont think. 

    Fantastic find though, thanks! Off to spend my paycheck now!

  3. Gclaussell33
    September 1, 2011 at 3:26 am

    Talk 'bout advancement!

  4. kratoyd
    August 31, 2011 at 10:06 pm

    I bet you could hook a 3D printer up to minecraft...

  5. thecolor
    August 31, 2011 at 7:55 pm

    What I'd like to see here is a kitchen that replicates the dishes you need for the situation you need it;

    step to the fridge for that cold beverage (even if the beverage is yet to be nano-generated)... the fridge raises a mold, pours the cup, it instantly hardens, and then fills with your beverage (like where the ice machine would be today).After you've enjoyed said beverage, just toss the newly created cup into your recycle bin and the object is turned back into a sanitized liquid that will be used again when a new cup is needed.  Voila, no more washing the dishes, no more drying them, no more stacking them/putting them away, and no more wasted spaces having to store them.Do this for the fridge and all dishes like plates and silverware, etc. with a quick solidifying  product and we are SO much closer to the Star Trek Future!  :)

    • James Bruce
      September 1, 2011 at 7:32 am

      That's an interesting take on the idea, mr color. It would need something to clean away the impurities in the unclean dish/cup too though I guess. And at the current speed, it might take an hour to get a glass of juice!

      • thecolor
        September 1, 2011 at 1:57 pm

        thanks for the early morning chuckle. :)

  6. Anonymous
    August 31, 2011 at 7:50 pm

    Ugh, yes, 3d printers, why not simply interview people that work with them on a daily basis? 
    They're not magical and wish people would cease portraying them as such.
    It is true they're fraught with limitations, but are rapidly improving. They're not going to be sitting in everyone's home next week either.
    The open source projects are wonderful and truly provide a great stepping stone into these technologies however, here's the caveat that everyone seems to completely miss. Any rapid prototyped part needs digitally generated data to build a part. This means one of three things.
    1.An existing 3d model of the part being made
    2.A scan (and then cleaned up) model of an existing item
    or 3. In the case of a new item, a part 3 modeled from scratch.

    Finally, as the costs are still rather high for these items, and the parts generated are typically of a lower durability, rapid prototyped parts are just not typically feasible for daily use.

    Full disclosure, I've been working with these type of machines over 10 years and sit 8 feet from a Dimension unit.

    • James Bruce
      September 1, 2011 at 7:31 am

      Thanks for your input Fred. That's kind of why the next article will address the real deal - open source projects you can build today. The whole point of this article was to say, yes, they do sound rather magical and such, and frankly they are, but theyre real... 

      Also, there is a rapidly growing library of 3d parts to print made by the community at large. I'll be introducing that next week too, to address your caveat 1 ;)

  7. Nathan Kratz
    August 31, 2011 at 7:45 pm

    i been thinkn about how they can liquefy dead ppl and wonder if recycling is in the works for remains ... clone printing machine

    • James Bruce
      September 1, 2011 at 7:28 am

      Eugh, gross. Thanks.