3D Printers, also known as Fabricators or “Fabbers.” Have you heard of them? There are a variety of techniques that slowly build pre-programmed objects in a variety of materials, varying in scale from hobbyists spraying thin resin films into fun shapes to airplane manufacturers preparing to bypass manufacturing limitations by “printing” airplane wings in heretofore impossible shapes. Some consider it could become a revolution on scale with the printing press, steam engine, or transistor.
The leading systems range in price from just under $25,000 to about $60,000 per unit. An annual maintenance agreement costs about $3,000 to $9,000 and vary by machine type. Materials range from about $1.50 to $2 per cubic inch of part (including infiltrant) for the materials from Z Corp. to $250 per kilogram for the ABS material for the Dimension machine.
On the lower cost end hobbyists are already able to build and run these machines (for about the cost/difficulty of maintaining a classic car, it would seem). For business, cost considerations can favor 3D printing over plastic injection molding for small runs - currently about 1000 units or less. One company even lets you print your World of Warcraft character as a 3D Plastic model, because it’s so easy to adapt the same machine to many different designs.
The mind quickens with possibilities: as technology improves, more materials can be printed, and the costs come down, what could we do? I feel like fantasizing a little this week. What might happen when the technology is really, fully developed, perhaps in a few decades from now?
Eschewing shops and downloading your purchased blueprint to local print center, saving so much on logistics and shipping costs. Printing medical devices like fake limbs, or machine parts, in complex shapes and customized shapes currently impractical or impossible. Rapid prototyping being taken to a whole new level, as fully formed equipment flows straight from the design. Cutting down on the waste from manufacturing processes by using an “additive” rather than “subtractive” approach to get desired shapes out of raw materials. Creating hollow shapes to save weight and materials. Freely distributed designs allowing the third world to print “freeware” equipment, furniture, toys, and musical instruments. Sculptors making the impossible and letting you download the beauty for a pittance. Archeologists and paleontologists combining 3D scanners and 3D printers to share their latest discoveries across the world. Theatre companies finding props over a lunch break. Dropping the cost barriers to startups and opening economies of scale to small and medium-sized consumer goods, and opening the “long tail” of small markets that Amazon captured in books to almost anything physical.
What about the downsides? I can easily envision a scenario where big companies buy their platinum cartridges but the average family can only afford some cheap single-color plastic resign. Will loads of cheap, white, plastic junk inundate the homes of the tacky and swell our landfills? (Why fix my tennis racket when I can print off two more? Why not pack my camping bag with bowls so cheap I’ll dump them in the woods after the weekend?)
Get even more creative: will pirated blueprints allow the printing of exclusive devices and luxury brands? Cheap knock-off products that seem real but are hollow or dangerous? The further undermining of designer companies? Will criminals start printing off keys? Will terrorists keep weapons and ammunition in their USB stick, rearming themselves in any friendly print shop? Will 3D printers slowly destroy the last vestiges of manufacturing labor in the rich world, and obsolete many shops as people opt to order items from the local print shop instead of searching the shelves?
Interesting stuff, and fun to think about. The point about logistics is more important than you might think…if we can print cheap knock-offs here, will we need globalization to deliver them from abroad?
It's like printing with a hot glue gun, except super-precise.