Is 3D printing the future? Or just another fad?
In the year 200 CE a new technological development was taking the textile manufacturing world (such as it was) by storm. Intricate designs of flowers, animals and even glyphs could be stamped onto fabric and cloth by relief-carving a block of wood – a process that had previously been laboriously done by hand. A little over 1000 years later Johannes Gutenberg, a goldsmith by trade, adapted the screw press to develop a machine that quickly printed type onto sheets of cloth or paper. The printing press quickly proved to be one of the greatest innovations of the Renaissance, to the extent that Francis Bacon, the great British philosopher, wrote in 1620 that it was changing the whole face and state of the world. A further 500 years on and another technological innovation takes place: A government-funded research group invent a machine that can print three-dimensional objects to a resounding chorus of… ‘meh’.
The simple fact is that early 3D printers were enormous, expensive, and a bit useless.Like personal computing, personal gaming, and mobile phones (in fact, rather like every technological innovation in the last forty years), printers had to get rather a lot smaller, cheaper and multi-functional before anyone got particularly excited. Skip ahead to 2012, however, and Chris Anderson, editor-in-chief of Wired magazine, leaves his job to become an entrepreneur, and it’s 3D printing that has him so excited. For him, desktop 3D printers are the next stage in an industrial revolution that started with the Spinning Jenny in 1764. Like the Jenny, printers such as the Makerbot can be used at home, refining an industrial system based on large-scale factory manufacture into a single button on a screen that says ‘make’.
Alright, so we’re still far from the Replicators envisioned in Star Trek and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Current models, particularly those designed for home use, still rely on materials which can be easily melted and which solidify quickly, like plastics. Metal and ceramic substances, for example, are much more difficult to work with. The technology essentially relies on a digital design for an object being read by a machine into thin horizontal cross sections, which are then minutely layered into a final object. This method allows for a fairly high level of complexity, but is extremely time-intensive; taking anywhere from a few hours to several days.
Nonetheless, there is a wide range of potential uses for these printers, from toys with working parts (the schematics for which can be found on the Makerbot website) to replacing those little household doohickeys that everyone is always losing – rather than ordering the spare part, simply pay to download the design to your printer. The Khatt foundation has even funded the creation of a 3D typeface, which can be personalised and ordered online. This emerging technology has an active community on such sites as Thingiverse, in which users actively create and share designs. One such user, Michael Guslick, recently had the tech world in a tizzy when he posted a homemade gun on his blog, Haveblue.org. Although only one part of the weapon had been printed (the plastic ‘lower’), the rest being the result of years of weaponsmithing and parts purchased over the counter, this could potentially maybe open the doors for an underground trade in unlicensed, untraceable weapons. Possibly. The danger is still some way away though, as current printer models aren’t able to recreate the tensile strength needed to fire projectiles.
An unusual early adopter has been the fashion industry, possibly because it’s so desperate for innovation that a dress made out of meat is considered groundbreaking instead of just ‘ew’. Haute couture designer Iris van Herpen takes advantage of the structural integrity that makes plastic a more viable choice than cloth when you’re looking to create an alien-looking body case rather than a dress. With collection names like ‘Radiation Invasion’ and ‘Refinery Smoke’, van Herpen’s bizarre constructions of tubes and shiny metallic ruffles are nonetheless intriguing, gaining favour with stars like Björk and Lady Gaga (though the latter did wear the aforementioned meat dress).
A perhaps more viable direction has been taken by several shoemaking brands like Continuum, which exploit the medium to create strappy high heels which need no buckles or stitching. The futuristic designs can incorporate wings, meshes and complex folds without leaving the kind of raw edges that rub and cause blisters, and will only set you back by an eye-stinging $900. Designers have even been using these printers to make delicate jewellery and household items.
Furniture, toys, and fashion all carry more than a hint of the faddish with them, but some of the most exciting developments in 3D printing are emerging from the field of medicine. Bioprinting has potential hardly short of the miraculous, from healing wounds where tissue has been damaged, to replicating cancerous tumours in order to test the efficacy of treatment, to one day even growing human organs from stem cells. Essentially it’s a way of printing living cells onto a structure in particular, complex pattern which mimics the conditions of a real body. Once the cells have started to grow independently the structure either dissolves or become part of the body.
Less creepily (bioengineering squicks me out), Nature published an article exploring the possibilities of printing pharmaceuticals in spring of 2012. The charismatic Professor Lee Cronin is hoping to develop a 3D printer which, rather than objects, instead prints chemicals. By developing what he calls a ‘universal chemistry set’, the printer would mix substances in the right ratios, even allowing for the necessary reactions to take place. While the obvious application for this technology is in the pharmaceutical industry, there is no reason why this technology couldn’t be used to synthesise, say, methylenedioxymethamphetamine or lysergic acid diethylamide if it fell into the wrong hands. However, like the printed weaponry, there’s still plenty of time before we need worry about that; the prototype chemical printer requires bathroom sealant as the suspension medium, rendering the final product extremely inedible.
This is all lovely and idealistic (apart from the illegal guns and drugs), but what are the downsides to this emerging medium? Well for one thing it’s still very limited. It’s hard to predict a technological trajectory, and usually the biggest technological innovations seem to come out of nowhere. Even if 3D printing does live up to its potential, that brings with it a whole host of problems. Home printers are perfectly common but the cost of ink rivals that of vintage champagne; trying to maintain a range of brand-compatible dyes, plastics and whatever other materials prove most viable for the medium (my current research suggests chocolate) can only prove to be wincingly expensive.
And that’s setting aside the issue of piracy. Let’s just quickly cast our minds back to a little over a decade ago, when suddenly free digital copies of music and films became available. Remember the messy, desperate and ongoing collapse of the music and film industries as they refused to adapt their business models? The constant legal battles over DRM and intellectual property? Now imagine that with the fashion industry. Why buy a $900 pair of shoes when you can print yourself the entire range, should the schematics be leaked online? Imagine a DRM law for those little plastic doohickeys (‘you may only print 5 doohickeys with this licence’). We’ll need some valium suspended in bathroom sealant to deal with that palaver, stat.
3D printing presents global challenges too: Chris Anderson describes the positives of refining the multi-stage process of manufacture into a single action performed at home, but in truth the loss of industry would result in massive job losses and the obsolescence of some kinds of craftsmanship. This is may not be an entirely bad thing, however, as many factory jobs are outsourced to developing countries where workers are paid a pittance to work long hours in poor conditions. Unfortunately the first world’s increasing reliance on electronics and raw materials sourced from conflicted countries would undo much of this potential good work, and would in fact be exacerbated should these printers become ubiquitous.
The ubiquitous 3D printer still remains a dream, but there’s no doubt that entrepreneurial spirit and business potential are booming. So while the future is proving its usual foggy self, it seems that 3D printers are here to stay, at least for the moment.