Want to print up some toys for the grandkids? Make some custom sweets for your sweetie, or have your specialist create custom implants for your surgery? 3D printers aren't just the latest tech toy. As they continue to come down in price and are more widely used, they'll shape how we work and play.
"3D printers let you go from a concept to a physical object quite quickly," said robotics engineer Hod Lipson in a presentation at ideaCity 2012. "The technology is going to touch every industry."
If you're not familiar with the technology, here's how a 3D printer works: you start with a 3D schematic or blueprint on the computer when you "send" to your printer (just as you would with a document or image file). Instead of dispensing ink, a 3D printer lays down very fine layers of material. Right now, many models use plastic. The machine takes in a very fine filament of plastic from a spool, melts it and dispenses it to form shapes.
Of course, plastic isn't the only medium available. There are printers than can work with clay, metal, processed wood and even food, says Lipson. The technology doesn't just produce models or stationary objects. 3D printers are capable of making items with moving parts. (They've even be used to make other 3D printers.)
Need to see it? Here's a video overview:
The possibilities of 3D printing
They may look like a novel tech toy or the latest gizmo for researchers and tech enthusiasts, but Lipson says that the devices are going to have far-reaching applications. A few examples?
- On-demand fashion. Imagine being able to design and print your own shoes or accessories, or instantly make your own items from a purchased file.
- Toys. Yes, you can print your own Lego, blocks and figurines (long as they don't violate patents and copyright law, that is). Websites like Thingverse.com already offer free patterns for download.
- Food. We're still far from the replicators of Star Trek fame, but 3D printers can create custom edibles like cookies with letters inside. (Of course, chocolate may just be the ideal medium.)
- Customized parts for machines or robots. Sometimes researchers need the perfect fit, and 3D printers allow them to quickly and easily build parts and adapt their designs. A 3D printer is a one-size-fits-all machine -- no need to develop a variety of machines to create parts and prototypes.
- Custom medical implants. 3D printers can make parts for humans too. Imagine having a bone implant or hearing aid made to fit you perfectly -- not to mention more quickly, and perhaps at a lower cost.
In the future, Lipson notes that stem cell technology could go hand in hand with 3D printing too. A patient's own cells could be used to create biological materials.
- Surgical training tools. Tumours can be especially dangerous to operate on, but surgeons could soon be able to print a 3D mock-up for practice before attempting the real procedure. (Ditto with bones and other training tools.)
- Preserving history. Artefacts and bones can be especially fragile to work with, but 3D printers would be used to create convincing reproductions for study and education.
- Education. Hands-on learning is an effective way to engage students of all ages. What better way to put those design skills to the test than to create a physical object?
It's easy to see that one of the biggest advantages of 3D is customized and optimized parts, but the benefits don't stop there. Lipson also notes that 3D printers could cut those "middle man" costs in the supply chain. Consider the following scenario: you purchase a schematic and the materials to print a toy in your own home. That toy no longer needs to be manufactured in a plant somewhere, shipped to a distribution centre, then shipped to a store and sold to you.
You could even create, test and sell your own designs without having to find a manufacturer.
Issues we'll face
If you have dreams of owning your own 3D printer, you had better start saving your cash. Even the smallest models start at $15,000 and larger device can cost up to $60,000. Size matters too: just as it would be difficult to print a larger poster on your average printer, you're limited by size of the device.
Too rich for your blood? Remember, prices have already come down significantly in the three decades 3D printers have been around. If you're feeling ambitious, you can find build-your-own kits for less than $1000.
However, cost isn't the only issue we'll have to grapple with, says Lipson. New technologies transform industries -- like how digital books and magazines are changing our reading habits, and digital music has changed the music industry.
Here are some issues Lipson says we'll need to keep an eye on:
Copyright. If you think pirating or sharing music, movies and ebooks is a problem, the debate -- and the lawsuits -- is already affecting physical objects too. (Like this lawsuit case reported on NMDnet.) Digital rights raises many questions surrounding how we create, produce and sell 3D blueprints and objects. How can we control licensing and digital rights? How can inventors and innovations get reasonable compensation for their work?
Liability. Who is responsible if a part or device doesn't work properly -- especially if there are damages or injuries? Is the designer at fault -- or the materials supplier or the person who runs the printer? How can we know, and how can someone be held accountable? How can we determine if what we're buying was made by something with the requisite expertise and safety training?
Even scarier is the idea that people who shouldn't be making certain items could produce said items. Lipson notes, for example, that 3D printers have produced working guns.
Energy use. While 3D printing may save on shipping and distribution costs, it isn't the energy-saving marvel we've been seeking. 3D printing can take up to ten times the energy per kilogram as conventional manufacturing technology, warns Lipson. It's not the most efficient way to produce products en masse.
Waste. People once thought computers would save trees. Instead, we ended up with reams of reports and print-outs. While there is growing pressure to go paperless, it has taken decades for us to understand the environmental impact of a technology that was predicted to reduce waste. The easier it is to reproduce something, the more likely we are to produce it.
The same already applies to 3D printing. Lipson shared the story of a graduate student who produced more than a dozen replicas of a part -- slightly tweaking the design each time. The result: a lot of unnecessary waste. As 3D printers are more frequently used in our homes, offices and classrooms, we'll need to be increasingly mindful of the resources we're consuming.
Experts like Lipson note that 3D printing is just starting to come into its own. Right now it's difficult to predict the help or harm they could case in the long term. As we embrace innovation, we need to be aware of the implications of embracing any new technology.
Want to see more examples? Watch Lipson's talk at ideaCity 2012:
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