3D Printing: Revolutionizing Your Future
By Jeremy Briddle
Since the Industrial Revolution caused crankshafts to turn, manufacturing has been the exclusive province of companies and factories; organizations with enough money and employees to build a single product. But that creates a problem: items must be mass-produced in order for the company to recoup its expenses. If the product is a flop, that company loses big. But with the proliferation of technology comes a new realm of micro-production that brings manufacturing to your desktop. 3D printing is an infant technology that is catching greater attention for the things ordinary people can make on their own. No factory necessary.
A 3D printer is like a monstrous hybrid of a hot glue gun and an inkjet printer. Instead of ink the print head extrudes a molten, quick-drying plastic. The head moves left and right, forward and back while laying down a thin film of plastic onto a platform. Its movements are precisely controlled by a computer. When the first level of plastic is printed the platform lowers a bit and the head extrudes a second layer on top of the first. It does this over and over again. Layers fuse together and after several minutes or a couple hours a three dimensional object has been created to the specifications of the 3D file loaded to the printer. These 3D files can be downloaded from the internet. They can be created from scratch using free computer software or by using a simple smartphone app like 123D Catch.
At Xerocraft Hackerspace in Tucson, many avenues of production using 3D printing are being tested. The source of the innovation is The Ultimaker. Bought as a kit online and built by Xerocraft members, The Ultimaker 3D printer, though sometimes buggy, creates some astonishing things. It prints replacement parts, statuettes, busts; almost anything you can imagine. For purchase, the Ultimaker prints out custom novelty keychains designed using SketchUp, Google's free CAD software. When a part of the Ultimaker, itself wears out a digital file of the replacement is downloaded and printed by the same 3D printer that the part will soon be integrated into.
The simple utility of 3D printers is already evident. Do you have a toy that's missing some crucial part? Maybe it's impossible to find or too expensive to replace. Just print out another. Create a rough draft of your new invention as a proof of concept. Tweak and revise it to your heart's desire easily with cheap plastic.
You can design your print in a host of free software packages that are becoming easier and easier to use. You don't even have to design it yourself. Want your own Venus de Milo? Download it from Thingiverse.com and you're halfway there.
Customized 3D prints can add that extra level of detail and authenticity to convention costumes. If it's a popular character, there's probably already a 3D file of it online. And if you don't like the way it looks you can customize it in software before printing.
The applications of 3D printing are virtually limitless. Almost any simple object built by human hands (and even many not-so-simple ones like Matryushka dolls) can also be fabricated in an Ultimaker or a competing product. Highly detailed, metal-extruding 3D printers are still priced in the six figure range but the costs continue to drop as the reach of the technology spreads. The Ultimaker costs about $1400, which is still prohibitive for most individuals. It's prone to some failed prints but these are issues that will be surmounted as time goes on. In modern technology the consumer-level 3D printer is brand new and there is still much exploring to do. But it's sure to have a long life that will bring with it a revolution in the world of production. These devices will become smaller, faster, cheaper and print at a level of detail unlike anything we see now. The 3D printer of the future will also be able to produce objects of different colors and materials.
Think of the effects of this technology on the manufacturing of goods and products made locally. Instead of "Made in the USA" you may soon see, "Made in your neighborhood". Products made and sold within the community not only stimulate the local economy but reduce the cost since no gas guzzling trucks were needed to ship them from other states. Instead of sending off for trinkets from China, your desktop is your assembly line. Anything you make can then be easily shared with the world simply by uploading the file to the internet.
The possibilities stretch beyond inorganic plastics and metal. The ability to print pharmaceutical drugs is also on the horizon. Nearly all drugs are made of the same handful of molecules. A printer loaded with the necessary ingredients and "recipe" for the drug the user wants made is a possibility that is currently being researched. This would revolutionize the world of drug testing and manufacturing. Instead of poor countries spending massive amounts of money for antiviral medication they could simply download the recipe and make the life-saving drugs themselves.
Scientists are also experimenting with 3D printers to extrude living human cells. The hope is to one day print out entire human organs tailored at a cellular level specifically for the recipient. Organ donor lists would be a welcome thing of the past.
Like any tool, though a 3D printer is only as benevolent as the person who uses it. There is also a darker side to this technology. Organizations like Defense Distributed freely release files that allow anyone to literally print out a firearm. Though the failure rate of the Wiki-Weapon had been high until now, they recently had success with an updated print of an AK assault rifle that shot over 600 rounds without breaking.
For good and for ill, 3D printing is here, it's growing more popular by the day and it's not going anywhere. It will surely continue to open many new legal and ethical quandaries. Many will explore the depths of 3D printing and not all of them will have the best of intentions. But like the Industrial Revolution, the promise of new realms of artistic expression, invention and breakthrough is too captivating to leave be.
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