Weekend Coffee: The 3D Printing Revolution

For a mental health break, this weekend I wanted to write about something extremely cool: 3D printing, an emerging technological trend that's been covered by, among others, the Telegraph, the Economist, PC World, as well as right here at Big Think's IdeaFeed.


As opposed to traditional "subtractive" methods of carving or sculpting, 3D printing is an "additive" method of manufacturing that builds up solid objects one thin layer at a time. The basic concept is the same as an inkjet printer, only instead of spraying ink onto paper, 3D printers use liquids that solidify or set. Liquid plastic or resin are the usual materials, but there are others: for example, industrial 3D printers can make metal objects by laying down a pattern of metal powder and then fusing it with a high-powered laser or electron beam. You can 3D print in ceramic, glass, or concrete or other composite materials by depositing layers of sand or gravel and then spraying a binding agent. One engineering company is exploring this technology as a way to print houses. Medical research companies are developing "bio-printers" that print human tissues like blood vessels and even whole organs, one layer of cells at a time.

3D printing has long been used in industry as a means of rapid prototyping, but it's increasingly migrating into the mass market as smaller devices like the MakerBot make their way into the hands of hobbyists. Granted, the majority of 3D-printed objects so far are plastic tchotchkes, but the technology has far greater potential. 3D printers can print objects with moving parts; with separated solid parts, like a chain; with complex porous or lattice structures; or "impossible" objects, like a solid ball inside a seamless sphere. Medical labs are using them to print artificial limbs, dental implants (including a titanium jaw implant), and shells for hearing aids. The RepRap is an open-source initiative to design a 3D printer that can print copies of itself. There's even an application called Trimensional that allows you to use an iPhone to make 3D scans of objects for later printing.

Truly revolutionary advances often come quietly at first, and I believe this is one of these. 3D printing as a technology is in its very early stages, but even in what it's accomplished so far, we can glimpse the contours of the future. What the Internet has done to the publishing industry, this technology promises to do for manufacturing: a leveling and democratizing that unleashes an explosion of creativity and innovation.

Imagine a future when every household has an advanced 3D printer on their desktop: a machine that can churn out everything from kitchen implements, to household tools, to furniture, to musical instruments, to electronics like a flash drive, an MP3 player or a smartphone. And it wouldn't just be a smartphone in one of the few models designed by Apple or the other major manufacturers, but any of thousands of models designed and customized by individuals and distributed in digital prototype files spread across the Internet. Imagine if making almost anything you could ever want for your own home was as simple as browsing a website and downloading a blueprint. It's a world we may well live to see, and I'm eagerly looking forward to it!

Image: The RepRap "Mendel" open-source 3D printer by CharlesC, via Wikimedia Commons; released under CC BY-SA 3.0 license

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