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The Future of 3D Printing Is Already Here

3d printer – en

DR

Eugene Gan - published on 06/24/13

3D printers are much more developed than you might think, and for a few hundred dollars you can have your own

Just recently, my editor sent me a link about 3D printers being used to create micro-batteries. But what really impressed me was how he then revealed that when he first heard about 3D printers, he thought that they were “gimmicks, or something architects might use for models” (I hope my editor lets me keep this column, since I’m now revealing how un-geeky he is).

My knee-jerk comeback was that the first time I read about 3D printers was way back in the early 80’s – on page 11 of Usborne’s 1979 Future Cities: Homes and Living into the 21st Century, to be precise. (Yes, I had to look up the page number…in the same book that still sits on my shelf today.)

That article sparked my imagination. It spoke of using lasers to carve and solidify a liquid to make 3D objects: “By following pre-set instructions, the lasers can ‘carve-out’ any shape in the tank… it may be possible to create virtually anything.” The phrase “create virtually anything” was enough to spark a geeky boy’s imagination, especially one who’d been reading such notable science fiction stories from Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov. I dreamed of all the things I could do with a 3D printer sitting on my desk, but what I really wanted to do with it was make bionic body parts (Six Million Dollar Man, anyone?) and more ‘down-to-earth’ parts for my plastic scale model airplanes and spaceships. (3D printer manufacturers: feel free to send one for review, ASAP!)

So how exactly does 3D printing work? Amazingly, that 1979 kid’s book had it right on the mark. It’s essentially one of the ways a modern 3D printer works: a laser carves out a shape in a gel or liquid substrate, which solidifies where the light is focused. However, the increasingly commonplace method is what the linked article above mentions: stacking layer upon layer of dimensional ink or powdered material that is fused together with heat or some other form of binding agent (glue, for the rest of us). The movement of the print-nozzle (or platform on which the model is created) is in turn controlled by the instructions sent to it from the computer that’s connected to the printer. And I bet that in a couple of years, you don’t even need to know anything about Computer Aided Design (CAD) to get a great model going because lots of easy-to-use consumer software will be available for you to design, tweak, modify and custom-make your own 3D models for printing. (Today, even Microsoft Word comes with its own ready-made templates for all sorts of writing projects you might encounter). 3D printing is called an additive process because material is added on to create the object. Unlike its predecessor, the subtractive process where a machine would mill out the parts from a big block of material and end up with a lot of the material on the floor unused, the additive process results in far less wastage of material. You can find a good “big picture” summary of the 3D printing process here. This could be more fun than Legos, and has potential to become the gift that keeps on giving.

Not too long ago, these 3D printers were available in the order of $20,000. Now, enthusiasts can find models for $500. The Buccaneer (pause there and think about the title and the name of the website where it’s advertised: http://pirate3d.com/) is touted as a “3D printer that anyone can use”; at $347 and fully assembled, you can now pre-order it on Kickstarter. (I wonder how much it’ll cost to get a 3D printer to make a 3D printer.)

There are many applications for 3D printing that go far beyond mere toys. In May 2013, Cody Wilson, a University of Texas law student, 3D-printed, test-fired his own working gun, and made the news. But he didn’t just stop there as he then proceeded to freely distribute the template online for anyone to print their own guns (including parts for the AR-15, the same type of gun used in the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting). That sent governments and lawmakers scrambling to play catch-up, and it’s easy to imagine that even with laws in-place, Pandora’s box has been opened… and replicated. The US Department of Homeland Security requested that the templates be removed from the website, but you know how it is online: even one file already downloaded can be easily duplicated and exponentially distributed. Do a search on YouTube and you’ll find videos showcasing working 3D-printed firearms. I’m now rolling my eyes at what’s going to happen to already long lines at airports when metal detectors will essentially be rendered useless with regard to detecting 3D-printed plastic firearms.

But there’s more: some have printed their own bicycle. Others have printed their own guitars (check out the sounds of these on YouTube) and clothing. Yet others are talking about streamlining the fabrication of housing by printing 3D houses in under 20 hours (

), significantly lowering costs, carbon emissions, and energy usage. And custom-designing a house would add very little to the cost since changes need only be made to the program. No fears either about living in such houses because they’d be printed with concrete that has been strengthened with composite fibers.

Then there’s tissue engineering, in which layers of cells are built up to create organs and body parts. This would support organ transplants, hip replacements, amputees, and even skin grafts, to name a few. Extrapolating from here, it’s conceivable that we may be able to make medicines using organic molecules as “ink”. Or take that one step further and you could print food…Star Trek replicators immediately come to mind (“Tea. Earl Grey. Hot.”).

Overall, 3D printing as it stands is still an expensive means to mass produce, but it can be very cost effective, not to mention convenient, for small quantities and rapid prototyping. You heard it here first folks: a new industry of 3D template creators will soon become the norm. You might make a living creating these templates right out of your own home, on your computer, and selling them online. In fact, an app for your iPhone (Sculpteo) is already available for free “to find featured designs, discover designers, buy and 3D print your objects”. Talk about going from passive consumer to active creator. (Check out Thingiverse.com, a repository of 3D objects that people have uploaded to freely share with the world).

How would the corporate manufacturing industry be affected? Consider that once upon a time, if you wanted to develop your camera film, you could find a shop just around the corner. Now, because of digital photography, you’d be hard pressed to find a photo shop (the place, not the software) in your hometown. Similarly, as you and I make our own stuff and 3D-print them out, or make purchases of objects directly from artisans, it’ll change the face of manufacturing. Manufacturing itself won’t go away, just as photography hasn’t gone away or the explosion of 2D desktop printers hasn’t ousted the print publishing industry. It’ll just change, along with all the other changes this technology brings.

The changes can be big, like the ability to build a lunar station with raw materials on-site. They could also be small and ‘mundane,’ but no less useful like making parts to repair existing appliances and equipment. But that’s the exciting part to all this: imagining all the possibilities in this brave new 3D printing world.

Just so that we’re clear, we’re not talking about creating clones here, folks. No amount of cell replication is going to get an organism to jump out of the 3D printer and start yapping at me. While the freedom to create anything means that it’s possible some nitwit will end up abusing the power, in the end, this technology, like other media, is as the Church reminds us, “Gifts of God”. Our Father God loves us so much, he shares his creative power with his children (cf. Blessed John Paul II’s Letter to Artists).

My sons are already making their own chalices, ciboriums, and monstrances (out of paper and cardboard) so that they can play Mass. I bet they’ll have a field day designing and 3D-printing these out (not to mention the cool medals, crucifixes, and 3D statues too) if they had access to a 3D printer. Me, I’m looking forward to affordable 3D scanners so that I can scan my sole action figure and have a whole army of six million dollar men for six dollars. Stay tuned.

Eugene Gan is Professor of Interactive Media, Communications, and Fine Art at Franciscan University of Steubenville in the United States. He helped launch Franciscan University’s Multimedia Concentration that prepares students for careers designing digital content ranging from video games, special effects, and animation to websites, videos, and educational software.

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