Feb 07 2012

3D Printing

This is one of those emerging technologies that has the potential to be a game changer – the ability to print three-dimensional objects. A recent news story brought to my attention how far this technology has come so far. Belgium surgeons have recently (this past June, although they just announced it) implanted an artificial jaw into an 83 year old woman. The jaw is made from titanium and was created with a 3-D printing process.

The process of creating the jaw involved “printing” thin 2-D layers and then combining them:

“It used a laser beam to melt successive thin layers of titanium powder together to build the part.

“This was repeated with each cross section melted to the previous layer. It took 33 layers to build 1mm of height, so you can imagine there were many thousand layers necessary to build this jawbone.”

There are multiple advantages to this technology over other forms of crafting 3-D objects. Digital design is nothing new, but of course this process benefits from the ability to design a part with software, make it perfect, and then craft it. For surgically implantable parts this also allows for the use of CT scan or MRI scans to precisely design parts of the exactly correct size and shape. Using the layering process also allows for complex internal structure, like grooves and holes, that some methods cannot create.

There are many possible cool applications of this technology, beyond crafting surgical parts for implantation. The ability to create, modify, and store information digitally and then print that information on demand itself is a game changer. The publishing world is already feeling the effects of on-demand printing. We no longer have to print thousands of copies, store, and ship them, and therefore anticipate demand. Rather, we can print individual copies of books on demand, drastically reducing the overall cost and the need for infrastructure (like storage and distribution).

3-D printers bring this advantage to objects. A machine shop, for example, would not need to store lots of parts, or order them and have them shipped when needed. They could simply print each part on demand as needed. This is especially useful for rare or outdated parts.  This would also make the creation of custom parts more practical. Custom shops can more easily, quickly, and precisely craft parts for cars or machines according to their own designs and needs.

In other words – the 3-D printer does for the creation of physical objects what digital media has already done for the creation of information (articles, books, music, and even art). It has dramatically lowered the barriers to creation and distribution.

If we extrapolate this trend (I know, this is always tricky) into the future, we are moving towards a world in which the creation of anything is limited only by ideas and information. There are no longer any editors that act as gatekeepers of creativity and information. Anyone can publish their thoughts, their videos or cartoons, online and distribute them to more people potentially than any previous publishing venue. This enables hidden talents without the resources to work their way up through a traditional publishing institution, or to get noticed by editors or producers, to put their creations into the public domain. This, of course, leads to a lot of crap, but there are also mechanisms in place to allow the cream to rise to the top.

That, of course, would be the ideal situation – a pure meritocracy of ideas and creativity. Give the tools of creation to everybody, and let ideas and products fight for attention in the common marketplace. There is still a role, I think, for experts to evaluate and promote exceptional creations. But it is better for this to be voluntary, rather than a barrier. Such mechanisms of expert evaluation have to compete themselves in the marketplace, to show their value and utility. Hopefully a new equilibrium will be reached between crowdsourcing and expert evaluation.

It will also be interesting to see how far the 3-D creation will go. Some futurists imagine a future in which we rarely, if ever, have to go out to purchase manufactured items, or even have them delivered. Rather, we print everything we need right at home. All we need is the raw material and the digital design, which we can alter at will. Of course, nanotechnology enthusiasts believe that ultimately it is nanotech that will fill this role, and there will be no such limits to on demand manufacturing. It is hard to say about what will be possible “eventually”, but such nanotech is still too far off to make any reasonable predictions, in my opinion.

Regardless, we have 3-D printing here now, and it is already practical not only for specialty use but for small businesses. It is not quite in the price range where most middle-class homes will have one, like a microwave. You can buy personal 3-D printers, but they still cost thousands of dollars. The Desktop Factory boasts that it has broken the 10k barrier. That is the barrier for small business and the rich, not for the average home. Traditionally the thousand dollar barrier is considered an important psychological barrier when such new technology products start to become widely used by consumers.

Wide consumer use appears to be in sight, however. It is possible that in 5-10 years or so we may ask ourselves, as with the microwave, how did we ever get by without our home 3-D printer.

15 responses so far

15 thoughts on “3D Printing”

  1. lab_rat says:

    There recently was a project on Kickstarter by Brook Drumm where you could get a kit to build your own modest 3D printer for $500 or an already assembled one for less than $1000. In addition to being used for medical purposes, you could also make that one missing Lego piece that you need to finish your building.

  2. StellaLuna says:

    I had heard of 3D printing but didn’t realize or understand what the process was like until last Christmas. While looking online for cool, geeky/sciencey gifts for my nephew, husband and siblings-in-law I found Robot Nation (www.myrobotnation.com), where you get to design your own robot action figure. When you are done, your robot is printed, shipped and mailed to you in just a few days! The videos on the website demonstrate how the printing process works – and blew me away. Such an amazing technology!

    My gift recipients had a lot of fun designing their robots (10-year-old nephew couldnt possibly have enjoyed it as much as my fifty-something brothers- and sisters-in-law), and received email messages letting them know where their robots were in the production process. We spent a lot of time talking about other applications, including potential medical uses and consumer conveniences (replacement razor blades, anyone?).

  3. Jim Shaver says:

    Some futurists imagine a future in which we rarely, if ever, go out to have [to] purchase manufactured items, or even have them delivered. Rather, we print everything we need right at home.

    Three-D printing is cool, no doubt. However, this idea that we will be able to print anything we need at home is pretty naive, as I think any material scientist would agree. There are thousands of material compounds, plastics, alloys, etc. used in manufacturing the products we take for granted today, and there are hundreds of forming methodologies used in modern manufacturing. All these materials and technologies simply cannot be replaced with a single process, let alone one that fits in your garage.

    Think of forged tool steel, for example. Or cast iron, or fiberglass, or sheet metal. Think of processes like injection molding, or metal drawing, or swaging, or hardening, or lapping, or vacuum forming. All these materials and methods are used in their particular applications, because they make the best parts.

    Instead of a Star Trek replicator view of 3-D printing technology, I think this technology will be used in the future much as it is used today — for special-purpose applications, like the surgical implants mentioned in the article, and yes, even in homes for quickly (and often temporarily) replacing low-strength plastic parts in appliances. That, and making cute dinosaur toys for the kids.

  4. tmac57 says:

    Some futurists imagine a future in which we rarely, if ever, go out to have purchase manufactured items, or even have them delivered. Rather, we print everything we need right at home. All we need is the raw material and the digital design, which we can alter at will.

    This seems like a real stretch to me.For one thing,economies of scale allow for mass produced things such as clothing,and electronics,and almost anything to be produced very cheaply,by historic standards.I seriously doubt that that could be matched by a ‘do it yourself’ setup at home.
    I do think that there will be a niche found for this technology,which will be useful enough that it may become a common household appliance,just not on the lofty scale that the optimistic futurists are dreaming of.Still waiting on my jetpack.

  5. DevoutCatalyst says:

    What Jim Shaver said.

    Can you print grade 8 fasteners, and also print springs? These are not merely different shapes. Wondering how strong 3d parts can be made. A titanium jaw has fewer demands placed on it compared to say an artificial hip joint, let alone a forged control arm for automotive applications.

  6. eean says:

    Surprised one of your brothers didn’t send you a link to the Makerbot “Replicators” unveiled at CES last month. 🙂
    They only cost $1800. Cheap enough for moddle class families with healthy geek budgets.

  7. I deliberately did not give a time frame for the “sometime in the future” comment, and also deliberately referred to “some futurists” so as not to explicitly endorse that view.

    So to clarify my personal view:

    I think what was said about the limitations of materials and manufacturing processes are all true. But – I do think at home or on-demand manufacturing will have an increasing place. As the technology gets more prevalent then that will create a market for designs that are “3D-Printer Compatible”. Objects will be redesigned just so that a workable version can be printed at home.

    At first the low-hanging fruit will be picked – mostly plastic items and parts. I agree that replacement parts for appliances will be huge. Broke the small plastic doohickie on your blender? Just download the specs from the manufacturers website and print a replacement.

    Increasingly items will be designed from scratch to be 3D-printer compatible, exploiting the technology.

    Think of all the things in your home that are essentially solid objects without moving parts – all cups, plates, utensiles, lots of furniture items, decorations, tools, containers, etc.

    Sure, there are also lots of items that would not be practical to manufacture this way, perhaps ever.

    We might also imagine the use of kits, where the parts that cannot be printed are included, with digital specs to print the solid objects, then you put it together.

    As I said, it’s hard to predict how technology will be used. I certainly am not arguing for complete penetration of this technology anytime soon. It will be interested to see how useful it will be. Will it be a novelty, a niche item, and if so how small a niche? Will it be increasingly indispensible and have significant penetration for most small domestic items? We’ll see.

  8. I also had another thought – recyclable raw material. What if you break a dish – you can throw the pieces back into the printer, it gets melted down or broken down somehow and can be used as raw material to make a new plate or whatever.

    The more these kinds of ancillary break throughs happen, the more useful the technology will be. But still a lot of “if”.

  9. tmac57 says:

    Along the lines of recycling that Steve mentioned,I could see a market for making your own raw materials for use in the 3D printer. A kind of plastics blender/grinder ,that could process water bottles,plastic ware,or whatever,based on it’s recycle number,to make the raw product for printing.That might really appeal to recycling fans.
    Also,I can see (maybe tongue in cheek) a market for manufacturers to deliberately make flimsy plastic parts on their products ,and then make a software design for the replaceable parts available for a “nominal” fee online.I can see geeks being thrilled that the ‘whatever’ for their favorite gadget broke,so they now get to download the design,and make a new one.

  10. ConspicuousCarl says:

    3d printing can still be cool even if you still have to mail-order a few critical parts and assemble everything. So maybe 3d printing will do for 21st-century consumer products what Heathkit did for 20th-century consumer products.

  11. Jim Shaver says:

    Heathkit, eh, Carl? Now you’re bringing back some fond memories. Also, I’m pretty sure I still have my Radio Shack 65-In-One kit stored away in the attic somewhere. Along with my metal Erector set, too. Time to do some digging…

  12. llewelly says:

    Household 3d printers will cause large toymakers to join the MPAA in decrying creative individuals as “pirates”.

  13. superdave says:

    their preassembled kit is 1700 bucks. That’s really not too expensive at all.

  14. willradik says:

    I wonder if someone anticipating something like this during the fax craze. I seem to remember reading speculation in school about a future where objects would created by “faxing” them into houses. This might have been in the Weekly Reader paper by Scholastic they gave us when I was a kid. I seem to remember they had an article about a flying car, too…

  15. TheBlackCat says:

    Another thing that is important, at least for someone who considers software freedom and control of one’s own electronic data important, is that these devices are all written using open-source software, which means individual users can tweak and modify the software to suit their own needs.

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