3D printing may still only be in the early stages of development, but a growing number of companies and individuals – both professional and amateur – are pushing the boundaries of its potential, creating 3D goods from prosthetics and food stuffs to drones and automobiles.
In this article I take stock of 3D printing today; I think through some of the social and cultural implications of 3D printing, and end with a list of 15 examples of current printing practices that give a sense of how far and wide this “quiet revolution” reaches into everyday life.
What is 3D Printing?
In case you're still not familiar with 3D printing, technology analysts Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee give a simple definition in their highly praised book The Second Machine Age:
“3D printers deposit materials like liquid plastic that gets cured into a solid by ultraviolet light. Each layer, is very thin – somewhere around one-tenth of a millimeter, but over time a three-dimensional object takes shape. And because of the ways it is built up, this shape can be quite complicated – it can have voids and tunnels in it, and even parts that move independently of one another.” (p.36)
Although the historic roots of 3D printing go back to the 19th century, the first practical application of this technology is widely attributed to Japanese researcher, Hideo Kodama of Nagoya Municipal Industrial Research Institute. Kodama invented an “additive manufacturing” (aka 3D printing) process using a photo-hardening polymer, controlled by a mask pattern and exposed to ultra-violet light.
According to the Japanese newspaper, Asahi Shimbun, Kodama “filed a patent application, and presented his invention in Japan and overseas, but few people took interest, driving Kodama to abandon the process.” Kodama was later recognzed for his contribution to the development of this technology receiving the UK Rank Prize in 1995 alongside the American inventor Charles Hull.
The first patent for a 3D printing process that was accepted was filed in France in 1984 by Alain Le Méhauté, Olivier de Witte and Jean Claude André. The patent covered a process known as “stereolithography.”
Changing the way we produce goods
For the past 200 years, the production of goods has been the domain of inventors, engineers, technicians, workers, managers, administrators, marketers, sales and logistics people, and many other intermediaries operating on a model that looks something like this:
|⇣ draft a product design plan|
|⇣ engineer tools to implement the plan|
|⇣ train and employ workers to operate the tools
|⇣ hire managers to oversee the workers and execute the plan
|⇣ hire administrators to audit the plan|
|⇣ assemble the product|
|⇣ market the product|
|⇣ sell the product|
|⇣ ship the product|
This model is time and resource intensive; it requires a wide range of people, skills, materials and infrastructure to generate a single product. The 3D printer has the potential to upturn this model, reducing it to an entirely virtual and digital process that a single individual can operate. That new model looks something like this:
|⇣ draft a design plan in a CAD (computer aided design) program|
|⇣ test the design concept in situ with a 3D printer|
|⇣ submit proof of concept to safety regulator for approval|
|⇣ market and sell the plan as a digital download direct to consumer|
|⇣ consumer prints product at home|
Any change in the mode of production in a society is fundamentally connected to a change in the structure and culture of that society. The gradual shift towards a “digital economy” predicated on automated and robotized production processes is already underway and poses urgent ethical questions for the future of the global labor market.
The debate about the negative impact of automated and artificial intelligence based technologies on the future of human employment is still very quiet – particularly at the governmental level. Some people argue that by the time we actually stop to look at what is happening, technologies like 3D printing, driverless cars, staffless restaurants and so on, will already have such a strong foothold that it will be impossible to reverse.
Another area of contention in this “quiet revolution” is the use of 3D printing to create weapons. This blog post by the University of Toronto does a good job of summing up the key issues in that domain.
Others argue that the benefits of these technologies outweigh the negatives, particularly in terms of advancements in healthcare (see the application of 3D printing in prosthetics below) and space exploration (see the NASA research project in to 3D food printing below), but also in terms of the environmental gains that 3D seems to offer. The jury is still out on the real environmental costs of this technology, but studies such as this analysis by Michigan Technological University of the open source printing model called RepRap, already suggest that there are gains in efficiency to be made compared to conventional manufacturing.
3D Printing today
One of the main driving forces behind 3D printing today is the amateur and enthusiast followers who play a key role in exploring the capabilities of this technology. The New York based company MakerBot, launched in 2009, has quickly become a leading player in the home 3D printing field. It provides equipment and materials for printing enthusiasts, but crucially it also runs a social photo sharing site called ThingVerse, where users can show off their latest works and share designs.
In the short term, since it's already possible to order on-demand 3D printed parts from some of the key printer companies, it's only a matter of time before “bigger fish” such as Amazon and Google adopt the print-on-demand model, and start building and shipping products through an entirely automated process that would have your purchased item delivered in a matter of hours.
Imagine the scenario: you want a new guitar, like the one featured below, not a mass-produced generic model, but a bespoke guitar, designed by you. It's not difficult to imagine a scenario where a few clicks on a website would have your guitar at your front door the next day.
This changes everything. Why? Making bespoke instruments has been the sole domain of luthiers for centuries. The aesthetic value we attach to “hand-made” objects is still embedded in that creation process: time, materials, knowledge. 3D printing has the potential to change those values.
Examples of 3D printed goods
I want to end this post by showcasing some of the most ambitious and trailblazing 3D printed objects that have been created to date. From human prosthetics, architectural models, cars and motorcycles, to art projects and musical instruments, 3D printing gives us a glimpse of future commodity production.
1. 3D Printed Prostheses
I begin this list with one of the most beneficial and noteworthy applications (so far) of 3D printing which is the production of prosthetic limbs. The young girl in the photo above is seen trying out a trans-tibial prosthesis as part of research project led by the Critical Making Lab at the University of Toronto. As part of the project the research team developed leg prosthetics for patients in Uganda. You can read about that project in more detail here.
2. A 3D Printed Electric Guitar, Drum Kit and Bass Guitar
The instruments below were designed by Swedish professor of product development, Olaf Diegel, from the Department of Design Sciences at Lund University. Diegel used 3D Systems printing machines in the USA to make the instruments.
The Hive 3D printed guitar was inspired by New Zealand nature, and features a honeycomb beehive look with model bees inside. The core of the guitar is made of wood while the other parts are printed. This makes the instrument customizable in shape and sound to suit the musician. See more detailed pics here.
3. A 3D Printed Motorcycle
This 3D printed motorcycle designed and produced by US firm Autodesk is made with functional parts using high-strength ABS thermoplastics.
TE Connectivity became the first company to produce an entirely 3D printed motorcycle in late 2014: “The motorcycle is a custom hardtail design and features a frame, wheel bearings, handlebars and seat all printed in plastic. It is 8 feet long, weighs 250 pounds, and can support 181kg, or two adult riders. The motor produces 1 horsepower, allowing it to travel at 10-15 mph for several minutes.” Read more about the design here.
4. A 3D Printed Car
Located in Phoenix, Arizona, Local Motors car company is working on a 3D printed car series. More details on the design are available from the LM website.
5. A 3D Printed Map of the United States
6. A 3D Smartphone Holder
7. A 3D Printed Quad Helicopter Frame
8. A 3D Printed City in a Shoe
9. 3D Printed Shopping Cart Tokens
10. 3D Printed Spatial Cardioidal Variations
11. The first 3D printed metal gun by Solid Concept
The Austin, Texas based company Solid Concept produced the first 3D printed metal handgun. The gun is composed of more than 30 3D printed parts using stainless steel and inconel materials. The process involved in making the gun parts is called Laser Sintering and uses a high-powered CO2 laser to join powdered thermoplastics together.
12. A 3D Printed Pizza by Nasa HD
NASA has been exploring the possibility of using a “3D printer” on deep space missions to produce food, tools and even spacecraft parts for astronauts. Read more about the research project here.
13. Elders React to 3D Printing
As part of their hugely popular “Elders react” series, YouTube stars The Fine Brothers gave its cast of elders 3D printers to play with. The video shows their reactions and thoughts about this technology and is quite revealing.
14. Chappie – a 3D printed robot
Chappie is the main character and title role in South African director's Neil Blomkamp's 2015 sci-fi film. The robot was almost entirely made from 3D printed parts by the Vancouver based visual effects company Image Engine. This article chronicles the development process of the robot and explains the decisions behind using 3D printing technology for this film.
15. An Unsuccessful 3D Print
It's interesting to see what happens when a 3D print goes wrong. If you think paper jams are bad enough, get ready for new levels of office anxiety 🙂