Imagine that, instead of heading to the mall to buy a new desk lamp or the hardware store for a new set of tools, you could simply surf the web for the product you’re looking for and, with the click of a mouse, print the object out, and use it right away. Sounds like something out of a futuristic Spielberg blockbuster? With the emergence of technology for 3D printing (aka fabricating or “additive” manufacturing) in recent years, it might be closer to reality than you think.
3D printing was really invented in the 80s, but it’s been primarily limited to industrial uses since then, such as the rapid prototyping of new products and designs in the aerospace, medical and automotive industries. In recent years, however, the technology has begun to be used to manufacture actual end products, not just models. In fields constantly requiring complicated parts like aviation, it conflates the process of manufacturing and saves time, money and resources. Less material is needed to fabricate a part, compared to traditional methods, which can result in a lot of unused material.
Current 3D printers work through a variety of methods, but are for the most part additive: building items by rendering extremely thin layers of material one on top of another. One type of 3D printer actually works in a similar way to existing ink-jet printers. Powder of a specific material is spread evenly on a build platform, and a bonding agent is sprayed on by a printer head to create a pattern, or a cross-sectional layer of the item. When that layer is done, the build platform is lowered a fractional distance, more powder is spread out, and the next layer is “printed”. Eventually, a complete three-dimensional object takes shape. There are 3D printers that use lasers, heated heads or other methods to fuse the building material, but the principles of additive layering are similar.
The latest methods of 3D printing allow fabrication of objects composed of multiple materials simultaneously, or objects that have moving parts. This means that someday, it may even be possible to print complicated machines or electronic devices as single intact objects that work hot from the printer. Although the process is mostly confined to materials such as plastics, resins and metals for now, as the technology matures, consumer manufacturing will likely undergo a revolution.
With 3D printing, each item is created individually, allowing for an unseen level of personalisation. Individual consumers may determine not just the colour and size, but actual shapes of all kinds of products, ranging from shoes to mobile phones. Innovation will also get a boost, with unlimited designs of creative, elegant or bizarre objects previously impossible to build or create with traditional manufacturing processes.
Pioneers in the field are already creating a wide range of products: jewellery, toys, chocolate bars, dental crowns, prosthetic limbs and furniture. Gamers can buy figurines of their online characters that look exactly as they do in the virtual world. Someday, with big and sophisticated enough printers, even entire houses might be conceivably fabricated from user-customised designs!
Once the preserve of an interested few in academia and industry, 3D printers (or “fabbers”, short for fabricators) are becoming affordable enough for small businesses and home enthusiasts. Basement inventors, artists and hobbyists have already begun to realise their own creations right in their own homes. HP is offering a 3D printer model under its Designjet series, and there are kits available that allow DIYers to build their own garage fabricators for a fraction of the cost of industrial models. For those who can’t yet afford one, or who have limited needs, there are now companies that allow you to submit digital blueprints via their websites and will fabricate your customised end products at a cost.
The legalities of a yet nascent field such as 3D printing are still, as expected, hazy. Illegitimate opportunities may be opened up, with intellectual property laws the first to potentially be infringed. Pirated digital blueprints may become as easy to download as MP3s, and used to create identical copies of commercial products. Weapons or weapon parts might also be fabricated. These concerns would likely lead to obligatory, strict regulations curtailing its use.
From the creative and logistical perspective, the sheer freedom enabled by 3D printing for manufacturers and entrepreneurs appears to outweigh the downsides caused by possible misuse. What will come out of this new industrial revolution, only time will tell. As with the music industry and MP3s, it is likely that markets will be transformed with the mass adoption of 3D printing. After all, the exciting thing about new technologies is that more and more, it is the user who determines and fabricates the future.