3D Printing... The Next BIG Thing?
3D Printing... The Next BIG Thing?
Thanks to the promise of DIYers, 3D printing is fast taking off as the next big thing. While expensive 3D printers can print in many materials and have been available for years, these new affordable extrusion machines print in plastic by building up layer after layer of material until a whole object is made. Think of it like a machine that draws with a hot glue gun. The machine moves on the X and Y axis to make a flat 2D drawing, then it moves up (the Z axis) and makes another drawing on top of the first, moves up, makes another drawing, etc. Over many, many layers, a full object is printed out. The ramifications are amazing- someday every home will have its own tiny factory! Instead of buying plastic crap thats shipped from halfway around the world, you can print anything you need right at home, whenever you want it. Anyone who can use Google SketchUp or other freely available 3D programs like Blender can make a 3d model and print it out, or you can download models to print!
This video demonstrates how 3D printing enables the creation of objects that are far too complex to be created with traditional manufacturing proceses, at a fraction of the cost. If you think about it, its almost like teleportation! I could send a file halfway around the world, and you could print it out- No UPS, Express Mail AND it arrives even faster than Federal Express!
This technology is ideal for rapid prototyping, but has implications on any number of other industries, for example:
- Medical- because 3D printing allows for the creation of porus shapes, its ideal for medical applications, specifically implants. Just last week, a woman's jawbone was printed in titanium! (see http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/80beats/2012/02/08/woman-receives-first and even organs) There are also numerous researchers working with the technology to develop ways of printing organs! Its entirely posible we will someday be able to print out a replacement kidney for someone!
- Construction- 3D printing has already been used on a massive scale to create buildings and sculptures over 30' tall!
- Food- People have been using 3D printing with frosting or chocolate to create edible food art
- Fashion- We may someday be able to print out shoes or other accessories, right at home.
Most of the excitement in the media these days around 3D printing is around a number of open source hardware projects:
- The Reprap project (http://reprap.org/ ) was the geneis of all this- the name describes the machine's ability to be self replicating- it can print a large portion of its own parts.
- Brooklyn's own Makerbot Industries (http://www.makerbot.com/) has lead in commercial marketing of consumer printers and kits. Their business model is pretty interesting. They create open source hardware designs, but markets kits or completed printers, starting at around $1300. Their site Thingiverse (http://www.thingiverse.com/) has become the defacto site for sharing 3D designs.
- There's a number of other low cost, open source printers out there. This past November, I sponsored Brook Drumm's Printrbot project (http://printrbot.com/) on Kickstarter. His goal is to make 3d printing more accessible than other kits by not requiring the electronics to be soldered, and to bring the cost down to under $600. I'm still waiting for my printer to arrive (hopefully in the next 6 weeks or so!)- I can't wait!
Like Apple's reinvention of the music industry, 3D printing promises to cause major upheaval in manufacturing. It also is going to cause a lot of copyright questions (What happens if I scan someone else's work?). In the same way that music, video and book piracy is an issue today, 3D models will become a piratable currency of tomorrow. Nick Bilton wrote a great piece about this issue in the NY Times a while back (http://bits.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/11/13/disruptions-the-3-d-printing-free-for-all/ ). You can't argue that it will change the world!
In anticipation of my Printrbot's arrival, I have been feverishly re-learning SketchUp and installing a bunch of modeling and printing utilities. That's a conversation for another post, but I predict that until some energy is spent on refining the UI of the currently available printing software, 3d printers will remain largely a hobbyist item. A majority of the printing utilities out there are open source and can be quite difficult to install. There's definitely room for improving how user friendly the interfaces are. I'm going to be looking at some of the software out there in my next post. In conclusion, this is going to be a big year for 3D printing, but we're still a ways off from having a 3D printer in every home!