The Promise of 3D Printing - Applications - Make: 3D Printing (2014)

Make: 3D Printing (2014)

Part VII. Applications

Chapter 15. The Promise of 3D Printing

Printing the world on your desktop.

Stett Holbrook

It’s a vision from a futuristic Star Trek universe: effortlessly creating three-dimensional objects on a machine in your home (or starship). And it’s here today. The dam has now burst on the 3D printing market and this once out-of-reach technology is now available to just about anybody, for less than $1,000.

Will being able to print 3D objects on your desktop change the world?

Spend a few minutes talking to manufacturers of 3D printers or early adopters and you’ll quickly hear them drop such heady adjectives as “game-changer,” “disruptive,” and “revolutionary.”

An Economist article from April 2012 by Paul Markillie declared 3D printing and associated technologies nothing short of the “third industrial revolution.”

“As manufacturing goes digital, a third great change is now gathering pace,” he wrote. “The wheel is almost coming full circle, turning away from mass manufacturing and towards much more individualized production. And that in turn could bring some of the jobs back to rich countries that long ago lost them to the emerging world.”

The personal computer, the printer, and the Internet made us all publishers. Now, with 3D printers, 3D scanners, and 3D design software, we can all be manufacturers as well.

Already companies are jockeying for position. High-end 3D printing pioneer 3D Systems bought competitor Z Corp. Two other big players—Objet and Stratasys—have merged. Industry darling MakerBot was named one of the top 20 startups in New York City and has been acquired as the desktop division of Stratasys.

3D printers, or machines that “print” three-dimensional, CAD-rendered objects by layering precisely extruded bits of molten plastic, resin, metal, and other materials, have actually been around since 1985—ironically, the same year the standard-setting HP LaserJet printer was introduced. The laser printer has become as commonplace as the personal computer. The same can’t be said of the 3D printer. But that could be about to change.

Until recently, 3D printers were prohibitively expensive, less than user friendly, and hidden behind the doors of factories and R&D labs. But thanks to the innovative efforts of makers and the open source movement (which encourages freely sharing designs and software among enthusiasts), the price of the machines has reached the consumer level. Now, a growing community of makers, designers, and artists are embracing the technology and taking it in new directions. And you don’t have to own one of the machines to use them—there are service providers that will do the printing for you. What you do with all this desktop manufacturing power is up to you.

To borrow a line (paraphrased from Karl Marx) from Wired Editor-in-Chief Chris Anderson’s book, Makers: The New Industrial Revolution, power belongs to those who control the means of production. The power to manufacture a growing list of objects (toys, jewelry, spare parts, even prosthetic limbs) is now available to the masses—and the technology fits on your desktop.

“Global manufacturing can now work on any scale,“ Anderson states, “from one to millions. Customization and small batches are no longer impossible—in fact, they’re the future.”

He too sees revolution in the air: “The third industrial revolution is best seen as the combination of digital manufacturing and personal manufacturing: the industrialization of the maker movement.”

Looking at the growing number of consumer-level 3D printers on the market has Anderson seeing 1983 all over again—the so-called “Mac moment” when Apple gave the masses a computer of their own: the Apple II. Apple didn’t invent the computer, they just democratized it, Anderson notes. The same can be said of RepRap and MakerBot, two pioneers in the affordable consumer 3D printer market.

“A new class of users will produce a new class of uses,” says Anderson. “I think it’s historic.”

Will 3D printers become as common in the home as DVD players and computers? Wonky software and documentation are the weak links now, but that will surely change. For now, Anderson tells parents this is the year to buy their kids a 3D printer for Christmas.

“They’re not going to be quite sure what to do with it, but their kids will figure it out. That’s the way big things start.”

Dale Dougherty, founder and publisher of MAKE, isn’t ready to pronounce the 3D printer a revolution just yet.

“I think we’re at the very early stages, with hackers and early adopters figuring out what to do with it,” he says. “It’s opening new avenues for people who are creative and making things.”

But the transformative potential is plain to see, Dougherty states. “It’s Wal-Mart in the palm of your hand. That’s the crazy promise of it.”

Part of the excitement that surrounds 3D printing is the belief that now the barrier to entry has dropped; the genie is out of the bottle. Where this goes, nobody knows. “We live in a 3D world, but we currently create things in 2D,” says Dougherty. What will it mean to have the means to live and create in the same dimension?

“We may go to a very different place.”

Stett Holbrook is a senior editor at MAKE.