If there’s one trend that’s poised to take off and enter the mainstream in 2012, it’s 3D printing. Sometimes referred to as additive manufacturing, 3D printing is the process of taking computer-generated designs and building them up in the real world, layer by layer, using materials such as plastic or powdered metal, via printers the size of a desktop. In the same way that you might print out a paper document, you can now print out a beautifully-designed piece of jewelry, a dress, an industrial part, a door hinge -- almost anything you can imagine -- even a Stradivarius violin. By changing how things are made, however, is it possible that we will also change what is made?
As The Economist recently pointed out after attending this year's Euromold additive manufacturing conference in Frankfurt, 3D printers are now capable of creating objects far more beautiful than anything ever imagined: “Many of these printed items look strikingly different from their conventional counterparts. They are more elegant, less clunky and have flowing lines. The result, shown off on plinths and in display cases, was more like an art gallery than an industrial exhibition.” Objects created by 3D printers look “organic,” as if designers have “deliberately copied nature.” Even when product designers started with a specific concept in mind, each round of iterative designs eventually brought them back to an optimal design already created by nature.
In other words, manufacturing has been transformed into creation.
The movement toward 3G printing takes advantage of wide-scale trends and behaviors already taking place within our society. The growth in popularity of Maker culture, the renewed emphasis on small-batch craftsmanship and the DIY ethos that has infused the digital world all have contributed to the creation of a grassroots, hobbyist movement around 3D printing. By some estimates, the most recent Maker Faire event in New York City attracted over 35,000 participants, leading some to speculate thatwe are witnessing the same kind of broad-based hobbyist movement that gave rise to the PC revolution. Some have even gone one step further, arguing that we may be on the cusp of a new industrial revolution, powered by small communities of DIY enthusiasts and personal 3D printing kits.
Recognizing that this transformation may already be underway, venture capital firms are beginning to provide millions of dollars in VC financing for 3D printing firms like MakerBot Industries to expand their operations. At the same time, the cost of doing all this 3D printing continues to drop, bringing it within reach of more participants. This Christmas, for example, MakerBot allows you to ship a Thing-O-Matic 3D printing kit to your loved ones for the low-low price of $1099.
For a trend to tip, it takes something to fire the public’s imagination and transform individuals into willing participants for passing along a viral meme. And, in this case, the inspiration is clear: you are not simply manufacturing, you are creating wonderful objects of beauty. And that’s where things get interesting. In many cases, these objects are able to accelerate thousands or even millions of years of evolution in nature. Who knew that fish gills are actually the most perfect form for exchanging heat between surfaces? Who knew that the nervous systems of animals were the most perfect way to distribute electrical signals within an object?
In the last paragraph of On the Origin of Species, Darwin wrote, "There is a grandeur in this view of life... in which endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved." What Darwin had in mind was how the evolutionary process continues to create natural forms perfectly adapted for their environments. What happens when, thanks to the advances in additive manufacturing, humans now have the same ability to create these endless forms, most beautiful and most wonderful?
Image: Researchers Proving a Theory/ Shutterstock