3D printing is a process of making three dimensional solid objects from a digital model. 3D printing is achieved using additive processes, where an object is created by laying down successive layers of material. 3D printing is considered distinct from traditional machining techniques (subtractive processes) which mostly rely on the removal of material by drilling, cutting etc.
There are already countless articles speculating that 3D printing will revolutionize the manufacturing industry, and even bring in a second industrial revolution. As resolution and material variety go up, cost and time to print go down, its easy to see we are in for some very interesting developments in the space. The sheer flexibility of what one can do with 3D printing will ensure its future success, as we will see many niche use cases and markets opening up for such devices. And as always, a new market has sprung up for security protocols such as DRM being placed on 3D printers to prevent people actually downloading and printing cars in the future.
Imagine if there was an appliance that could deposit multiple types of material down to a resolution so fine that it could make something that feels like cloth, make something that passes for wood, or eventually print circuitry. Even in the near term if these machines could be made cheap enough it would be a huge blow to the toy industry. I expect to see a type of Moore’s law in printer resolution kicking in within a few years where a printers resolution would increase by one decimal place every couple years or so to be extremely conservative.
Nasa has already taken advantage of 3D printing, with their engineers designing a compact version of this machine that can be used in space. With this machine they don’t have to carry different tools for different parts of a mission. They can print the tool they need, then when they’re done, they smelt it back into the plastic to be reprinted. They have a prototype that is supposed to go to the ISS by next year. Boeing already create about 300 different smaller aircraft parts using 3-D printing, including ducts that carry cool air to electronic equipment. Some of these ducts have complicated shapes and formerly had to be assembled from numerous pieces, boosting labor costs. currently.
One niche market that has cropped up is the design and printing of luxury metal door handles. This shows that 3D printing with metal components is already possible, and will probably only become more efficient in the years to come.
We will see novel online market places cropping up around this new industry that will offer downloadable 3D models of anything from spare nuts and bolts to more sophisticated machinery that can be printed from home. Don’t believe me? There are already several market places up and running, Thingiverse and Pirate Bay’s “Physibles” category.
There is already a project that is attempting to create a 3D printer that is capable of printing copies of itself. RepRap is humanity’s first general-purpose self-replicating manufacturing machine.
For now, 3D printers are slow, bulky and expensive to use – as with any new technology in its infancy. However, if we forecast 3D printing to its natural conclusion 50-100 years down the road, its not hard to imagine a Star Trek replicator type appliance that can print anything from food to devices to spare parts and tools.