Maybe it’s just me but has 3D Printing stealthily crept up on us and in the main gone unnoticed? Ok, it has been around since the 1980’s and started gaining notable traction around 2010 but it seems recently that every time we go online, open a newspaper or tune into our favorite radio station, there is another story concerning 3d printing. The technology has been on the periphery of our vision for some time but for the most of us, it seemed to be something that was very high tech and not necessarily something that would immediately become a factor in our day to day lives. When you hear the US president Barack Obama describing the technology as having the potential to “revolutionize the way we make almost everything”, you start to realize that there may be seismic shift in our midst. Upon further inspection of what the technology actually encompasses and is capable of, we quickly start to realize that the furore surrounding this fascinating technology is more than justified.
This rapid rise is not without merit, the possibilities this technology offers is truly astounding. At first glance you would be forgiven for thinking that you had tuned into a science fiction programme instead of a news bulletin, such are the futuristic tendencies that surround this nascent technology. Bearing striking similarities to the qualities of the replicator from Star Trek, 3D printing has brought the future of technology into our lives today and it looks like it is here to stay.
First pioneered by Charles W. Hull of 3D Systems Corp in 1984 (who is credited with creating the first working 3D printer in this year although Hideo Kodama of Nagoya Municipal Industrial Research Institute was the first to publish an account of a functional photopolymer rapid prototyping system in 1981), 3D printing was born. Charles W. Hull is credited with the invention of not just the first 3D printer but also the technology used known as Stereolithography. 3D Printing, which, up until 2010 had been mainly utilized by engineers for creating prototypes became widely available to the public and significantly more affordable (3D Printers in 2010 would have set you back $20,000, today you can pick one up for as little as $1000).
So how does it work?
Well, firstly you are going to need a plan, or more specifically, you will need to create an original idea using digital modelling, this usually takes place with the aid of CAD or animation software. The design is then sent to a 3D printer and the machine reads the design from an .stl file, (Stereolithography ),and lays down successive layers of liquid, powder, paper or sheet material to build the model from a series of cross sections. using a technique known as additive manufacturing, your creation will start to take form, never before has pressing the ‘print’ button been so much fun! Additive manufacturing is the process of sequential layering, your creation will be built from the ground up using thousands of layers. These layers are sprayed from manoeuvrable nozzles from printers known as ‘extrusion printers‘ where base material –which is usually thermoplastic filament– are laid down in layers that eventually result in the finished process. This is the polar opposite of how we have traditionally manufactured goods where goods and materials would have been cut into or ‘machined’ to obtain the finished product.
So what can we do with it?
This, for me personally, is the real deal breaker, 3D printing has opened up an entire realm of opportunities across many industries with the very real possibility of making a palpable difference not only to these industries but to our very lives and the lives of people around the world. Recent advancements have seen NASA use this technology for making engine parts for their rockets, this experiment not only produced a flawless component but was substantially cheaper to produce due to the reduction of the number of components needed to construct the parts. This would conceivably lead to long term production of complex components using this method providing they stand up to the rigorous tests they will have to endure, at the time of writing the signs of these tests are pointing towards a flawlessly constructed component.
There are many industries that have already been touched by this truly amazing technology, and if current traction continues there will be many more, cars have been constructed, musical instruments have been assembled, clothes have been made, there really is no limits to this fascinating technology, but, and this is where the true value of this industry can truly be a game changer in people’s lives is the recent developments in ‘printing’ food and body parts.
Life changing technology
Take a step back for a second and really digest the last line of the previous paragraph. Only when you let that line sink in then you can even begin to start to fathom how this technology could influence and change lives all around the world for the better. Sure, 3D printers will be able to produce many products that are handy to our lives, everyday items will be made to measure, the days of going to find a part for a household good only to find they are out of production will be over, you can print your own. Transport of goods will be cut down, warehouses to store goods won’t be needed, packaging will be negated, all contributing to reducing pollution, while these are all great advancements they pale into insignificance when compared to the last line of the previous paragraph.
We are able to print food and body parts.
This is a technology that seems almost too good to be true, granted at its current incarnation only one ingredient can be produced at a time and the nutritional value is, to date largely unknown, but this is a technology which is advancing all the time, one would imagine that it won’t be long before there are ways and techniques to combat these problems. After all, we wouldn’t have imagined sitting here talking about such a subject only a few short years ago, who is to say that the next few years won’t be as revolutionary?
The difference this could make to our world would be astounding, there would be no palpable reason to have starving people in the world, no reason at all, mankind could do itself a favour for once and use this technology for the masses and not just the corporate conglomerates. Some may accuse me of having romantic, fantastical notions, such an approach would cost money and someone would have to foot the bill they would say. Sure, it would cost money but isn’t that the tiniest price to pay to stop people dying of starvation? Could the money saved from previously mentioned NASA parts et all go some way to funding such an initative? Could this technology not be assembled in countries affected by such plight that they could become self-sufficient and at the very least ensure people weren’t dying daily of malnutrition? There is obviously some grey area here that would have to be cleared up such as what exactly is in the food and how suitable it would be for long term consumption, one would have to assume that if NASA is willing to try this out on their astronauts then it won’t be far away.
There will be the counter argument that such developing countries should be investing in sustainable growing techniques using modern aquaponic systems but surely this could be carried out in conjunction with these revolutionary techniques rather than have a one versus the other argument? To set up such growing systems would take time and would be at the mercy of many factors, while this setup was coming to fruition surely the printed method would offer at least a short term solution? After all there are more than one billion people starving in the world and they are dying every day, the time to act is now, not tomorrow. Granted, the food these machines produce may not be of a culinary standard but I think that would be the least of your worries when you don’t know where your next meal is coming from.
Some will accuse me of not realizing the big picture and this is only my opinion, but sometimes the big picture only complicates an altogether more simple solution. Some will point to the valid fact of who would pay for these machines in countries where there is already a shortage of money, perhaps I don’t proclaim to have all the answers but this much I do know, technology is supposed to advance our quality of life and as such should be used for in cases such as these where the benefits far outweigh the financial implications.
The benefits of 3D printing are also making extraordinary strides in the medical field, the first prosthetic leg was produced in 2008, in 2009 the first blood vessel was reproduced, recent strides have seen prosthetic eyes manufactured using similar methods, (at a much reduced cost to their glass and acrylic cousins), bionic ears have enhanced the lives of their many recipients as well as other body parts such as noses and bones. The list goes on and on, the scope for medical advancements is truly staggering.
Technology is often said to be life changing and many times it has been close to being so but I for one cannot remember such an opportunity for a technology to truly do immeasurable good and have a major influence on our lives for years to come. As with all things there is the possibility for untoward methods for 3D printing as the recent furore around the printing of guns, there will always be bad apples in every crop, this shouldn’t be allowed to deviate from the true value and progress this technology presents us with.
As this technology advances and evolves, more and more practical uses are expected to come to fruition as a result of additive manufacturing. With the addition of 3D digitizers, 3D sensors and 3D scanners, the possibilities are nigh on limitless.
It seems the only limits inherent here is our own imagination.