When people talk about recent technological revolutions, they almost always mention two of the biggest upheavals to hit our society: the advent of automated manufacturing, and the creation of the internet. The first allowed for the rapid creation of millions of different components and items, resulting in a huge boom for economies around the world and paradigm shift for businesses. The second created the ever-growing connected world of information bombardment that we live in today.
What happens when you combine these two components? Well, you get 3-D printing, and it promises to bring yet another revolution to the way we live our lives.
3-D printing has been around for quite some time, having been invented back in the 70s as an aid to manufacturers and designers who needed models for their ideas. These machines are often shaped like a large box, and give people the ability to design and create 3-dimensional objects using 3-D rendering software such as AutoCAD. What’s remarkable about these machines is their ability to create objects out of a wide array of materials, as well as the incredible precision with which they build the item designs.
While these machines have been around for several decades, the real revolution is just around the corner. As demand for these devices has risen and costs to manufacture them have gone down, 3-D printers are getting closer to hitting everyday consumer markets (in fact, you can already buy one if you’re willing to shell out a thousand bucks). With the emergence of these machines to common households comes a revolutionary new method for obtaining physical goods.
Most 3-D printers operate on a principle known as “additive manufacturing”. This is a technique in which an item is manufactured by adding components together in order to create the final product (as opposed to “subtractive manufacturing” where you start with a big block of material and chip away at it). The basic principle can be seen below — the printer takes your 3-dimensional design and slices it up into tiny 2-dimensional (flat) sheets. It then layers these sheets on top of one another with a heating element and the material of your choice. Check out the video below for a demonstration.
So what’s the big deal with these things? Eighty years ago, if you needed an object — say, a spoon — then you’d leave your house, go to the nearest household store, and buy one. With the advent of the internet, your best bet might be to check out Amazon.com and pick up a spoon. With a 3-D printer in hand, one only needs to download some blueprints off of the internet, send them to your printer (as you would send a written document to a regular printer), and watch as the machine manufactured your newly-minted eating device. No waiting, no mailing, instant spoon.
But 3-D printers can do much more than build simple products. They’re already being used to manufacture tiny parts for complicated machinery, to build organ tissues for hospitals, and they may even be used to manufacture guns. The technology promises to allow a user to construct whatever they would like, from the comfort of their own home. These ideas once lived purely in the realm of fiction, but as with so many other technological advances, they will become a reality sooner than we might think.
A slew of companies have recently been formed with the aim of bringing 3-D printing to your own home. One such company — Dreambox — costs roughly ten thousand dollars, and can be used as a “hub” to manufacture goods for people from all over. It is an automated system in which users can upload their designs on the web, and come pick up their creations on location. Not quite a household item, but it brings the ability to manufacture to anyone that lives nearby. In fact, one such Dreambox was recently installed on UC Berkeley’s campus. Based out of Etcheverry Hall, it is possible to upload a 3-D design and pick it up within a matter of hours.
As with many other technological revolutions, the implications of this new technology are still unclear. On the one hand, it will be possible for anyone to create a 3-dimensional object from the comfort of their own home. This might prove to be yet another hit to the world of local businesses and brick-and-mortar stores. On the other, it opens up an entirely new chapter in the world of copyright infringement, as users will be able to replicate designs ad infinitum and distribute them over the internet. Just as the MP3 changed the music industry forever, so will the 3-D printer change the world of industrial design.
At the end of the day, 3-D printing is undoubtedly a gamechanger. It empowers the average person in ways that haven’t been seen before, it counters the entire business model of most manufacturing companies, and it opens the door to untold creativity (and misuse) in the creation of objects. In several years the world will be a place of creators — of customizers, manufacturers, and designers — all operating from their own homes. In the meantime, I guess I’ll go work on my AutoCAD skills.