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3D Printing: The Final Frontier?

Innovation times

Posted by JR Reagan on October 1, 2013

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2012 began with a few big flurries of news about 3D printing, which grew throughout the year into a full blown, white out media blizzard covering its commercial and personal applications.

3D printing changes the way we make things. Instead of cutting away at a piece of wood or sheet of metal, or some other material to make a final product, 3D printing (or additive manufacturing) makes three-dimensional solid objects from a variety of materials by adding layer on upon layer. The technology’s been around since the 80s, but the bulky, expensive printers remained a barrier to entry for most.

Those barriers have all but disappeared in recent years, resulting in a burgeoning industry that could potentially change the face of manufacturing. Along with this promise comes the potential for a new set of problems.

Highlights from 2012

Today, 3D printing is already used to make everything from jewelry and art, hearing aids and joints, car and plane parts, rapid prototypes for manufacturing and architecture, to prosthetic body parts and other biological materials. Some of the 2012 industry developments reported on the site 3D Printing Industry include:

  • At a conference in July, a hacker opened standard police handcuffs using a 3D-printed key.
  • In August, a Formula racing car designed by engineering students and constructed almost solely with 3D printed parts took to a circuit track in Germany, completing two races.
  • In December, the 3D printing companies Objet and Stratasys merged into one giant with a $3-billion market cap. Operating now as Stratasys, the company offers 3D and printing solutions to the aerospace, automotive, commercial manufacturing, education, and military markets, among others.
  • Also in December, New York’s desktop 3D printer manufacturer MakerBot announced it would delete gun parts from its design site Thingiverse. (MakerBot has since been acquired by Stratasys in a June 2013 deal).

3D printing to shape the future

Forward-thinking manufacturers already use 3D printers to speed production, cut costs, create rapid prototypes, and quickly bring final products to market. Consumer devices and services now allow the creation of objects on demand.

What else can 3D printing offer? Well, it’s more than mere “printing.” How about entire buildings printed with concrete? Or vaccines that, once developed, just need to be emailed then printed locally, wherever a cure is needed?

A bigger question isn’t what might 3D printing create—though the industry is in its infancy, those limits are being stretched daily—but instead what limitations we should anticipate and consider.

If it’s possible to print and distribute a vaccine, what steps can we take to prevent the creation of 3D-printed bioweapons? If we can 3D print anything we want on demand, without the traditional restraints brought on by mass production, what steps do we need to take to protect brands and intellectual property?

A solution like bioprinted meat might sound like a great solution to world hunger…but would you want to eat it?

If there’s a 3D printer in every home, what safeguards need to be in place? Making one-off or personalized items from home sounds great, but the average consumer doesn’t have a background in engineering or product design. What happens if we start manufacturing our own products or parts, without the decades of expertise that have gone into making things that aren’t just functional, but safe?

Finally, if one ultimate outcome of 3D printers is the creation of machines that can replicate themselves…well, haven’t we seen that movie a few times already?

That future’s not that far off any more, one consumer 3D printer can already make most of the components needed for its own creation. A “self-replicating manufacturing machine,” once assembled, the device can then be used to print all manner of other things.

All that’s required (for now) is someone to put together the parts.


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