Saturday, 1 June 2013

3D Printing, the next Big Thing?

3D printing is becoming a hot topic for the past year, especially since this technology is slowly entering the consumer marketplace. While the technology is still far from all its potential its implications include the likelihood of providing things in a greener, less-centralized, less resource-intensive way. However, as anything in life , there are also potential negative effects. Over the long run, everyone is expecting great things from this technology.

The Good

3D printing refers to a range of different technologies that are able to make a three-dimensional object from a digital file. First, the dimensions and details of the object must be drafted out in CAD (a computer-aided design) software. The CAD file provides the directions by which the 3D printer builds an object, laying down molecules layer by layer and line by line much like a normal ink-jet printer. How the machine prints the object depends on the type of technology used by the manufacturer of the 3D printer.
Believe it or not, the first machine using 3D printing technology went into commercial use in 1986! Since then, the machines have become prevalent in commercial manufacturing shops. Initially, it enabled companies to quickly produce plastic prototypes on site, but the real benefit has come from their expanded use as additive manufacturing machines, i.e. products can be manufactured by adding resources rather than the conventional way of subtracting from a larger hunk of materials. You can see this as a sort of "just-in-time" manufacturing, where companies can now manufacture parts without major effort and without being depend on the old system that required parts to be manufactured in mass quantities, stored in massive warehouses and shipped to distant locations.
Thanks to the ability to build a product from the bottom up, 3D printers can print shapes that cannot be viably manufactured any other way. For example, did you know that Airbus already used 3D printers to make airplane parts lighter? This allows the plane to use less fuel without sacrificing its safety. Other functionalities can be seen in the health sector, where people with missing limbs can have custom prosthetics printed to their personal shape.
3D printing also means significantly less waste. Traditional forms of machining often have substantial waste, but additive manufacturing generates far less waste and also makes it easier to reuse anything that was left-over. When 3D printers are ready to saturate the home-use market, they may provide an almost fully self-contained system. When printed items break or need replacement, home users will simply recycle them into the machine, creating a cradle-to-cradle system, i.e. will bring recycling into a new extreme
The primary costs are in the machine itself and in the consumables or injection materials as most of the cheaper machines are limited to plastic, but many will function with more than one type of plastic.
Maybe you don't know this but consumers like yourself can already order 3D printed items on-line. In a sense you will need to find or buy the CAD file for your desired item on the Web, download it, send it to your local print shop, and then go pick up the item in a few hours. These companies grant consumers and small businesses all the benefit of custom additive manufacturing without the hassle of learning CAD and handling a machine that may pose potential dangers such as toxic fumes or exposed moving parts. The range of items we can self-manufacture this way is as limitless from Lego to food containers, custom smart-phone covers, etc.
If home-based 3D printing takes-off on-line stores and large mass manufacturers will almost certainly find their business models threatened as digital technology again forces a massive change to retail business models.

 The Bad 

As mentioned, no matter how awesome the potential may be for any given technology there will always be consequences. We should never underestimate people as there will always be someone willing to apply any new technology to their worst impulses. Let's face it, the Internet allowed people to say things on-line that they would not say in public, so what can this new technology bring? Let's continue to read this post...
Some months ago Paramount Studios sent a cease-and-desist letter to an individual who posted designs for a toy that was a licensed. This, as I am suspecting, it is just the beginning as in long-term it is going to be hard to stop anyone from posting downloadable designs on the Internet for home 3D printers. What is happening to the music industry? Can you honestly say that you can not find a Top40 song for free on the Internet?
Furthermore weapons can now be printed in any shape and practicable material. Recently a company in the US was able to make a gun 100% out of plastic... and do you know what they decided? The decided to put the CAD design available for anyone.So now anyone can own an unregistered gun... never underestimate people's worst impulses... putting my personal view on weaponry aside (yes... I am against civilians to own weapons) this could eventually place an arsenal of untraceable guns in the hands of people who would not be able to legally buy them. Looking in to Europe now, we are also starting to see some negative effects of this technology, a member of a German lock-picking club designed a key for handcuffs just by looking at one photo taken from a key being worn by a police officer. They then printed a copy to prove it worked, and posted the new design online.
Furthermore, 3D printing even has the potential to change the drug landscape. Researchers at the University of Glasgow have developed a system that would print the necessary lab equipment to create pharmaceuticals. While this kind of technology has the potential to democratize the millionaire pharmaceutical industry, it might also enable people to print illegal narcotics from home. It also means that the drugs people buy could become more dangerous than they are now.

 The Bio-hacking

3D printing represents a new paradigm and a complete revolution in thinking about how we create many of the common objects that surround us and support our lives.
Researchers at Wake Forest University are using the technology to print new skin directly onto a burn wound. They scan a burn victim’s wound into a computer, which in turn creates a 3D image with the exact size and shape of the wound. The printer then prints new layers of cells using skin instead of ink directly onto the lesion, the whole process takes only an hour. This means that 3D bio-printing research could eventually lead to the printing of organs ready for implantation, meaning in a reduce waiting period for organ transplant.
But what can happen, let's think... What if the long-term future for 3D bio-printing will be the bio-hacking? I.e. changing how society thinks about implants. This is when we start to have a Hollywood view on the technology and visions of using digital technology to enhance our bodies could become reality. We will then be in an ethical conundrum.
As with any cultural postulations about the future, the idea of bio-printing extra body parts can sound ridiculous but this is not as far fetched. As robotics and automation increases over the years, people may want specific augmentations that will enable them to perform certain unique tasks... again this may have severe implications in many areas... imagine what this can do to the military sector.

Final thoughts...
The physical aspect of things always faced constraints. Just like we are slowly moving our LPs/CDs into "digital" mp3 or putting all of our information on the "cloud" (i.e. cloud computing), 3D printing technology is also changing our perception of digitalisation vs. physical. 3D printing has already revolutionized several industries from toys to airlines, now that revolution is about to come to our homes. Along with some economic and environmental benefits this technology will also bring some challenging implications for how we look at shopping, security, health, and when you think of it... just about everything else. While the ramifications of any new technology can never be understood ahead of its time, you should start getting ready for the next big thing, the technology that will disrupt our economy but more importantly our lives.

Blog Editor and Owner: Luis Aparicio Fernandes (or Mikey) is a Business Expert and a Traveler based in Sydney, Australia. He is a member of The International Honor Society Beta Gamma Sigma due to his achievements in business. You can follow Luis on Google+, and LinkedIn.