I hope you’re sitting down for this. If not, I can print a chair for you.
Some of you may have heard of 3D Printers while others are wondering what the heck that can even mean. Basically, a 3D Printer prints out objects. Typically it works by melting plastic into the shape of the object one layer at a time and stacked on top of one another. So, if it were printing a cup, it might spill out an ooze of plastic in the shape of a filled circle, maybe do that 2 more times on top of it, and then print out a hollowed circle, say, 50 more times on top of that. (Still confusing? Check out this video.) Voila! A cup!
Now, around a year ago was when I first started to get really interested in this - and I promised a post about it that somehow never happened, but there’ve been some great developments with the technology lately which reminded me that the post is long overdue.
In particular, I was blown away by a recent video (e.g. here) about a prototype 3D printer which, instead of using the typical heating elements and medium (e.g. plastic), was basically “desert powered”: It uses solar panels to power the electronics, solar rays and a huge magnifying glass to melt the material, and the material it uses is sand! The electronics guide the machine which then melts the sand into objects made of glass. Pretty amazing stuff. But that’s just the beginning.
There are different ways to make 3D printers and different kinds of mediums to use, ranging from wood to chocolate (yes, you can print 3D edible goodies). And there’s a lot to be said about it all. However, I want to stick to three main points.
But before continuing, I should caution that reading any further may - and likely will - result in mind-explosions and paradigm shifts. You are warned.
1) Currently, most 3D printers use a single medium, like plastic, but there’s a lot of research into how a second medium can be added. In particular, “3DP” enthusiasts are trying to figure out how they can print circuits. After all, a basic circuit is not much more than a non-conducting board with some conductive material, like solder, on it. Well, we’ve got the plastic board, so we’re half-way there. Once we can add a basic conductive material, we can also print the boards with little holes into which transistors, and resistors, and diodes, and LEDs can be inserted.
In short, it’s a few small steps to printing electronics.
Undoubtedly, the first electronics to be made will be very rudimentary and… well, kinda junky. But like any new technology, it just needs some time to develop. Think about the early computers. Most people never thought it’d be of much use to anyone - and had they not evolved into the super small and quick devices we have today, they’d probably be right. Or think of early cell-phones. You know the ones I’m talking about. The “convenience” they afforded then seems laughable by today’s standards, and that’s been only a fraction of the time compared to computers. So give 3D printers some time, and just imagine where this could lead.
2) Actually, where could it lead? Once I started thinking about it, I realized that I could use a 3D printer all the time! A piece from the shower door broke? Just print out a new piece. A blade broke on your fan? Print new blades. Want a flute? How about a new chair? Or a new bike?! (Newer design methods have found ways to build many “difficult” objects, such as those larger than the actual printer, using, in this example, an Ikea-esque approach of post-print interlocking pieces.)
But while I tend to focus on how sophisticated the designs are becoming, it’s also good to note how practical it already is. When I was at MakerFaire last year, I heard Bre Pettis, co-inventor of MakerBot, speak about his device. Someone asked if it had practical use. "Well, last night I needed a bottle opener and was about to go out and buy one but thought, ‘hell, I’ll just download the design and print one.’ And so I did."
Think about it: You will not need to buy almost anything relatively simple. Ever. (And I’ll be quite happy once they find a biodegradable plastic to use and recycle. Seriously, I think that should be a priority in the 3DP community.) Look at the stuff in the room you’re in right now and think about how much of it could be printed. Seriously. And that’s just we’re it’s at now. In a few more years, as the technology develops, you’ll start printing out complex and electronic objects. And some people already have.
A hybrid car was printed last year (though I’ve been looking for more details, as I’m fairly sure that it’s only a bulk of the car that was actually printed - but still quite a feat). And manufacturers are already finding that “rapid prototyping” with 3D printers has allowed them to test out designs quickly and thereby greatly accelerate their progress. In other words, we can start to see tech innovations coming out a bit faster as a result.
Just consider how something like this could transform developing countries, such as with the solar “desert” printer I mentioned before. Think of what they could do with it. Just printing shoes (and yes, a basic design for shoes is already out there) could make a big difference in their lives. How about printing some irrigation pipes? Or the aforementioned bicycle. Imagine how a simple mode of transportation could transform life for many villagers! Thinking bigger, how about printing parts for a machine that can make bricks to build a home? There’s already an organization that’s designing "blueprints for a civilization" - i.e. how to build the machines you need to make other essential stuff. Imagine if those initial machines could be printed out?
Yeah. Seriously think that over.
Oh, and if that wasn’t mindblowing enough, how about using 3D printers to print out organs for transplant? Again, sounds rather SciFi-ish, but some researchers are already doing it! (here.)
In short, I don’t think we can really guess what limits this technology will have - if any.
3) And I’m sure many of you are wondering how much something like this costs. Well, professional versions are thousands at the cheapest, while a MakerBot will run you a few hundred dollars - which is pretty great. But what if, instead of buying one, I simply printed out a new printer for you? Sounds great but unrealistic - or is it?
The “RepRap" Project’s aim is to design a 3DP that can print itself. (Btw, RepRap is how I first heard of 3DP a few years back.) Their current version, the Huxley - because, yes, they have working versions - can print approximately 50% of its components, and as printing electronics becomes a bit easier, that number should quickly jump up quite a bit. So it may just be a few years till your friend can easily print one for you, and, I suppose, everyone will have them. And as CAD design programs are becoming increasingly user-friendly, average Joe’s like you and me will be able to design and print our own original 3D creations!
Of course, once everyone has a 3DP, society will need to adjust. It’ll certainly effect our business, shopping, manufacturing, and import/export trade. How that’ll effect the economy? I have no idea. Or how about copyright? With the dawn of the digital age, book, music, and movie companies had to scramble to deal with piracy - and it’s still a big issue. How will object manufacturers react when people steal designs by scanning objects (perhaps with a kinekt!) and sharing designs with their friends? It’s going be a turbulent time.
But one thing is certain: 3D Printers are on the way… and they’re going to change everything.
Wiki - 3D Printers
RepRap (did I mention that they’re open-source too?!)
Thingiverse - Where people share, improve, and download 3D designs
Printing a RepRap Upgrade - From a Darwin (the first version) to the Mendel (the second version) - I love this concept!
A project for printing electronics - not great, and not the leading idea, but I love how McGuyver this is.
Random video of stuff someone printed out - just an example. Check out some of the other awesome youtube videos about cool prints.