3D Printing, from SciFi Replicators to Reality
Obvious to any Star Trek fan would be the three iconic words used by Captain Jean Luc Picard of the USS Enterprise to summon his hot beverage of choice: “Tea, Earl Grey, Hot”.
In my mind, 3D printing has always been a technology that, similar to the warp drive and transporter technology, remained well beyond what could even be achieved in my lifetime. Over the past few years however, there have been great leaps forward not in the technology of replication, but in its cousin, 3D printing.
While there are fundamental differences between the fictional Star Trek replicators and 3D printers, the end result, given sufficient advancements in 3D printing technology, is more or less the same; A 3D design is entered into a computer which process the data and creates a series of horizontal, cross-sectional slices from the model. The raw materials are then laid down, layer by layer to create the final product. While there are differences in the type of material used, the movement of the print head or tray, the need for scaffolding around the printed object as well as the way in which the material hardens, the differing methods all end up with similar finished products. (For an in-depth look at the different methods, see the Wikipedia entry on 3D printing.)
With current 3D printing technology we’re able to produce useful objects such as artificial ears, working models of basic mechanical parts and even such society enhancing products like the N12.bikini– ‘the world’s first ready-to-wear, 3D printed article of clothing’. These items are only stepping stones toward the true potential of this technology. What strikes me as the most potent transformative impact of 3D printing isn’t necessarily the novel production of any physical object you could possible conceive, but the way in which it unleashes the limitless possibility of innovation among the average person.
The Industrial Revolution brought the benefits of economies of scale to the world but had high barriers to entry. Large factory floors, huge investments in physical and human capital along with high energy costs made the benefits of manufacturing only available to large companies. With 3D printing we’re able to maintain all the benefits of economies of scale while doing away with those pesky drawbacks.
To produce a clock once required a horologist to hand craft each individual component. On an assembly line, mass produced components are fabricated and then assembled at low costs, but on a massive scale. With 3D printing, at a relatively low cost, a working timepiece can be designed and manufactured from the comfort of your own home. Perhaps even in the future, the blueprints for objects like priceless musical instruments may be downloaded via the Internet and printed in an afternoon. It’s possible to imagine an orchestra of students from your local elementary school all playing Stars and Stripes forever on their Stradavarius violins (Print Me a Stradivarius) in their annual spring recital.
In addition to the commoditization of rare and high-value items, there is a whole new world of intellectual property issues 3D printing unleashes. Let’s say a specially manufactured component of your car fails and needs to be replaced. Instead of taking your car to the dealership, you simply hop online and download a CAD file that contains the blueprints for the damaged component and print one out yourself. So long as you don’t manufacture and sell the product, is it within a consumers right to bypass the manufacturer and produce their own replacement parts? Beyond this, what will happen to the market for goods when the technology enables us to bypass the manufacturer entirely and create entire products from pirated design files?
Regardless of the decades of legal battles and reams of legislation that will undoubtedly be created, this new world of 3D printing promises to change the production of goods as profoundly as what we saw during the Industrial Revolution. Additionally, just as the Industrial Revolution changed the way we work (together with many others in large production centers), our living environment (in high-density urban locations), and the way we live (at a much higher standard of living), the widespread adoption of 3D printing has similar, far-reaching impacts.
For those anime fans among us, we may find ourselves in the future calling up our favorite vocaloid by saying, “figurine, plastic, Hatsune Miku”.
More on 3D printing:
Picard replicator image: Iconnectdots