Printing is not something that makes digital headlines to often but it’s an area set to take a big twist over the next few years. Whilst most consumers still tend to think of a printer as something that squirts ink onto paper, the reality is that printing is becoming one of the most interesting emerging digital technologies and is progressing at a steady speed.
What do 3D printers do? Essentially they take some raw material (often in the form of a roll of plastic (ABS) or powdered resin) and build objects by printing the plastic in micro thin layers on top of each other. 3D printers can also print objects that have moving parts, with no need for assembly. The video below gives a good idea of how it works:
This head was ‘printed’ with a colour 3D printer (see here)
Today you can create your own DIY 3D printer for around $1000 (kits here) or a commercial desktop 3D printer for as little as $2500. The prices go up from there as you start to add colour, size, speed and detail. Most are a little sluggish and can take a few hours to produce objects the size of a coffee cup, but it’s very compelling watching objects appear out of thin air. The early adopters of 3D printers have mainly been designers, artists, prototype makers, model makers and other enthusiasts with initial uses ranging from sculptures to making custom lego parts.
Above: This light was created with a 3D printer by artist Bathsheba Grossman.
Above: A commercial 3D printer.
Below: The open source DIY RepRap 3D printer.
Devices that replicate themselves?
It sounds a little “SkyNet”, but one of the interesting things about some of todays 3D printers is that already they are able to reproduce parts of themselves. The open source RepRap 3D printer already enables users to ‘print’ it’s own upgrades as well as most of the parts to build a new one. Pretty cool.
The future of 3D printers and the role they will play?
Lets jump ahead 15 years and imagine every house having a 3D printer. This will partly be possible because if you own one, you’ll use the printer to create all the parts to give one to your neighbour to assemble – these devices will be able to self replicate very easily. Most of your materials for printing will be from recycled materials in your house. Now picture that this printer is super high resolution, fast, and can print a wide number of materials including organic substances. Instantly certain products like kids toys can be ordered on demand, downloaded and printed out with no waiting for delivery from the postman (note: watch out for the next wave of piracy – which could potentially impact companies like Lego because making compatible parts will be a click away). Also, because these printers will be capable of printing organic material certain foods will be printable from online menus or a cooking show you might have seen on TV – for instance you may use the printer to print some amazingly intricate chocolate shells to be filled with fresh cream and fruit from the fridge. Of course the picture hook you need for the wall can be printed in a couple of minutes along with the spare part for the broken dishwasher, bike or car.
3D printing raises many interesting questions, as well as threats and opportunities for businesses. Environmentally they could turn out to be a godsend if the recycling can be dovetailed into the technology. Right now this is a very early and emerging space but expect to see much more of this over the next few years.