3D printing will revolutionise life as you know it

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Once the refrain of only large organizations, 3D printing will be an explosive revolution, changing everything it touches, and changing the ...

Once the refrain of only large organizations, 3D printing will be an explosive revolution, changing everything it touches, and changing the economy as we know it. It also presents considerable challenges for manufacturers, but the opportunities may be too numerous to ignore.

By Karn G. Bulsuk

The end of the line for mass production?
“Tea. Earl Grey. Hot.”

Such was a common order to Captain Jean Luc Picard’s food replicator from Star Trek fame, after which a bit of whirring, lights and Hollywood magic, a freshly brewed cup of tea would appear in a glass cup. Similarly, he could order his favourite volume of Shakespeare, freshly minted, or any inanimate object for that matter.

It is a future which may not be too far away.

3D printing, once the domain of car manufacturers seeking to create car prototypes, is increasingly becoming cheaper as the technology matures and the production of printers reaches economies of scale.

It has the potential to revolutionise everything, as 3D printers have no limit on what they can print. They can churn out replacement parts for machines which have long become obsolete, or build entire objects from scratch. NASA for example, is experimenting with technology to print out parts for the International Space Station, with a 3D printer being delivered to the orbiting platform in October 2014.

The future of organ printing.
Such printers have also been used to print out biological components. While this is still in its infancy, researchers at the UK's Heriot Watt University have managed to print out stem cells, which could one day be used to print out entire, functional organs. Printing out a replacement heart using one’s own stem cells would remove twin problems of waiting for a donor and rejection, as it would be a genetic copy of the person’s own organs.

3D printing will revolutionise manufacturing, and redefine mass customisation of goods by allowing a product to be tailored exactly how you’d want it, then having it printed out at the local 3D printing shop. Give it a few more years, and like the photo printer, which used to only be available in photography shops, or microwaves, which used to be comically large, it will be miniaturised, affordable and present in every home.

It has the potential to change everything it touches. The massive supply chains developed over the decades to facilitate mass production may shrink, as mass 3D printing no longer requires production to be done in a centralised facility. Scenes common in shipping capitals such as Hong Kong and Singapore, where thousands of neatly stacked cargo containers being loaded into even larger cargo ships, may become a rare sight.

Of course this may have positive effects on the environment, as decreased shipping could help to similarly lessen the 3 percent of carbon-dioxide transmissions that maritime shipping, and the 2 percent from aviation, is emitted yearly.

But most importantly, it has the potential to revolutionise the world economy, reversing major economic trends over the past two centuries: prior to the start of the Industrial Revolution in the 1800s, the vast majority of good were manufactured and consumed locally. If 3D printing becomes popular, we might once again be seeing a partial return to that model.

The bad, and the horrible

Of course with every opportunity come considerable risks. Given that 3D printing will rely on a computer file containing the specifications how to print an object, how will they protect that information? What is to stop people from effectively printing out unauthorized, but exact replicas of products such as a Gucci handbag or perhaps even a Ferrari super car? Object piracy, similar to the problems facing the music and movie industries, may discourage manufacturers from releasing 3D printable objects and stunt the growth of this new manufacturing model.

The Pirate Bay, a website facilitating peer-to-peer file sharing, has already gone ahead and included a section in their site titled “Physibles”, to provide files for 3D printers in the future when it has become common and ubiquitous.

Despite the potential for piracy, some companies have begin to embrace this as part of their future. Nokia recently released the 3D printing files so that users could print their own cases for their Lumia 820 Windows Phone based device.

Like all technologies, it will take a while before its adopted and there will be significant pushback from threatened industries. Progress may be delayed, but like all revolutionary innovations, such as inoculations, the jet engine, and peer-to-peer file sharing, once let out of the bottle, there’s simply no way of pushing it back.

Maybe soon we’ll be pretending to be the Captain of our own 3D printed starship bridge, wearing a 3D printed uniform, ordering food from our very own 3D printer.

Earl Grey tea anyone?



Photo credits: Lance Cunningham, Car manufacturing line

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Karn G. Bulsuk: Full Speed Ahead: 3D printing will revolutionise life as you know it
3D printing will revolutionise life as you know it
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Karn G. Bulsuk: Full Speed Ahead
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