I heard about 3D printing about a year ago, and at the time, thought it sounded kind of cool, but it also sounded a little over-hyped. I remember whatever pundit was talking about it claimed that it was going to revolutionize manufacturing, and disrupt our lives as we know them. Comparing it to the personal computer, internet, etc. I’m not positive that this is the case, but wanted to learn more and in through my research, I’m getting a little more sympathetic to the view that this could indeed change our lives dramatically.
First have to give a little primer on 3D printing; basically it’s making a physical object based on a digital model. You’ll also hear the term “additive” because the items are created by gradually adding layers of material to the object to create the desired shape. This is significantly different than traditional “subtractive” manufacturing where objects are cut/drilled/carved out of a larger item.
The first question I had when I started to hear about 3D printing, was ‘what is the stuff that you use to make the object?’ This kind of depends on the flavor of 3D printing we are talking about, but a few examples 3D printers have printed stuff in; Plastics, Wood, Glass, Rubber, Steel, Concrete, Human cells, Cheese, and Chocolate.
The material you are using kind of drives the flavor of 3D printing we are talking about. Probably the most mainstream one and the one I’m going to be talking most about is extrusion. This is where the solid material is heated up so that it’s liquid, and then squeezed through a nozzle. Once it is ‘extruded,’ it very quickly hardens back into a solid object.
The other flavor that is interesting is the ‘granular’ method which is used when 3D printing with metal. Here you basically have a sandbox full of metal powder that a high powered laser shoots and melts layer after layer to create the metal object. One area I did not research heavily, but sounds awesome, is the organs that are printed off with human cells. I have no idea how that works, but they have successfully printed working human bladders, bones, etc.
While the medical uses are super cool, the potential for disruption really lies in how these printers can change manufacturing. At the moment, probably the biggest use for 3D printing is called ‘rapid prototyping.’ So here a company/university etc, can try out all sorts of designs very quickly and efficiently. Before 3D printing, an artist or sculptor or something would have to create a model of the thing, would use that to create a mold, and then finally they could use these molds to build the item. If they screwed up, or found a design flaw, all of that overhead is gone. 3D printing allows the designer to upload his file, and a few hours later, be holding his design in his hand.
I was surprised to learn that companies have been 3D printing since the 70s. So why is 3D printing such a hot topic now and why is it being thought of as a potential disruptor? $$$$. The printers that companies have been using are super big and expensive. So only companies that were very R&D intensive and had sufficiently large budgets for the initial outlay were able to take advantage of the technology.
Today, a basic 3D extrusion printer will only run you like $1500. This opens the door for small business and even personal hobby users to have a 3D printer. This is where we start to see the case building that 3D printing could be extremely disruptive. Does the following summary of where 3D printing sound familiar to anyone: Large, expensive implementations of the technology are used only by large companies for very targeted and specific use. Over the years the tech gets cheaper and cheaper, allowing smaller companies to get in the game. Finally, the technology becomes so inexpensive that early adopters start using the technology in their homes just for fun. Last step is that the technology becomes ubiquitous, and used in ways that no one could have conceived of when the first companies started using it.
Sounds just like the track of the computer + internet, no? So we are still fully in the mode where the only people that have these in their homes are the hobbyists. I would argue that these are the same people that bought the first apple computers. They dropped like $2K in 1986 to get a clunky computer that could do some word processing. In the same way, today, you can buy the new “Makerbot” for $2K that allows you to make small plastic items.
So one cool example I stumbled across is StackSoap. This guy saw a need for a better way to deal with that annoying last little turd of soap in the shower when the bar is almost gone. He had the idea to solve the problem with the shape of the bar. So he designed a bar on his computer that had a built in groove that you could easily cram that last bit of soap into. Once he had this computer model, he emailed it to a 3D printing company and had a prototype of his bar of soap in a few days. It wasn’t quite right, so he was able to tinker with it a handful of times before arriving at the final product. This type of flexibility and agility when it comes to design was impossible 10 years ago.
So the other powerful thing that I see with 3D printing is when you combine it with the internet. In the same way people at home were able to create and share digital content with others in the last 15 years, 3D printing allows them to share actual things. The power of millions of people tinkering with designs of things and sharing them will theoretically create more and better items. Sort of the same concept of crowdsourcing of those protein folding video games that Geo talked about a long time ago. Just sheer numbers of people tinkering with stuff is good for everyone. So the company I mentioned before, “Makerbot” has an online community where people can share their designs, provide feedback, etc, called the ‘Thingiverse.’ It’s worth a quick perusal to see the type of stuff home-users are creating right now.
So let’s get a little crazy about the disruption as this technology gets better and we can print more and more materials… How about a world where the whole hardware store can fit in the space of a bathroom. If you need a certain set of screws, you just download the design online, and either print them out on your home-printer, or take it to 3DPrintHomeDepot and have them print it off for you. If I’m Home Depot, think of what this does to my logistics costs. Currently, I have to stock a huge variety of screws, spend a lot of money forecasting how many will last me to the next shipment, actually getting all of the product delivered to my store multiple times a day. In a 3D printing world, I probably get a couple shipments of the raw materials my printer needs a couple times a month, and when a customer needs something, I just print out exactly how many they need.
How about space travel and terraforming? How much stuff in the space station today are spare parts that will only be used in emergencies? Why not just send a 3D printer up there with a bunch of raw material, and they can print whatever they need for their missions? Once we get a planet terraformed, how do we build the stuff we need there? Do we really need to ship all the pieces there, or can we get a big 3D printer that is able to print somehow in whatever raw material is already there? This guy is already planning on building the first 3D house in the next 18 months.
I fully realize that trying to predict where technology is going to go is virtually impossible to do, so who knows if the things above will actually happen, but I think that probably the most powerful effect of 3D printing is less tangible. Our generation, and even more-so the next generation will be the first generation that has grown up with computers and the internet. I think there is more powerful than we give it credit for. Growing up knowing that all the information in the world is at your fingertips in a couple minutes is powerful. Just knowing you can create a podcast and distribute it across the world for free is powerful. Staying connected with friends and sharing ideas instantly is powerful, and the kids from today have never known a world where those things aren’t there, so they will create better and better things to increase our quality of life.
In the same way, I can see 3D printing taking this same track. A kid growing up knowing that if he has an idea for something, he can create it and physically have it in his hands in a couple hours is sneaky powerful. Growing up knowing you can pretty instantly create not just digital content, but physical content creates a fundamentally ‘new’ worldview that we haven’t seen before. THAT is what I think is the most exciting thing about 3D printing.