It is perhaps one of the most exciting technological advancements of our time and thus surely deserves all of the media coverage it can muster. However 3D scanners and printers HAVE been in the news recently, but for all the wrong reasons. Whilst the mainstream gutter press would probably have you believe otherwise, 3D printing is capable of so much more than creating barely functional plastic weapons and it is (in a very real sense) the process that is going to redefine not only the way we shop, but shape our lives in ways we once only dreamed were possible.
What is 3D Printing?
3D printing is an incredibly complicated process that can actually be explained in rather simple terms. A three dimensional image that’s either been scanned into the computer via a 3D scanner or drawn from scratch, is put into a CAD (computer aided design) software program which can be read by a 3D printing machine. The machine is able to create a 100% accurate model of that 3D image via an additive manufacturing process that adds layers of materials (liquids, powders or extruded filaments) that are laid down in a series of cross sections in different shapes. These sections are then fused together to create the final shape, which should be a completely accurate representation of the digital model. Printing can take anywhere from a few hours to a number of days depending on how large and/or complex the model is, and as such is not yet suitable for mass production. But for the home user the possibilities are endless.
3D printing has already revolutionised the way model prototypes are used but with increased power it’s not unreasonable to expect that 3D printers will become the future of mass production. Their slow print speeds limit them to industrial and hobby use at the moment, but once print speeds are increased ,the production lines of the future could be potentially ‘worker free’. Hobbyist model makers and artists have really taken to 3D printing, with 3D scanners allowing them to make perfect copies of their creations and 3D printers allowing them to visualise their ideas like never before. Independent companies are also using 3D printing in fresh, exciting ways. One American company for example has just created the world’s first, fully functioning 3D printed guitar, which they plan to sell via their own website.
One of the major criticisms cast against 3D printing is that it could potentially cause monumental global job losses in the industrial sector and cause irreparable harm to international trading. It’s also been theorised that it might cause a significant problem in the courts thanks to the inevitable lawsuits that would arise of copyright and product ownership. However what the naysayers neglect to understand is that as the technology becomes more standardised there will be new laws put into place that can help the justice system adapt. 3D scanners and printers could also save businesses countless billions in production costs, which will of course help the global economy. As with any important new development the challenges and opportunities need to be weighed and considered before any drastic measures are taken. People are generally adverse to change but the fact of the matter is that 3D printing is here to stay, and it won’t be long before we all start to reap the benefits.
There are many theoretical applications for 3D printing that might initially seem like the stuff of science fiction. The world’s first 3D printed bionic organ was created just the other week and the implications there for medical science are obvious and far reaching. With the right raw materials meanwhile, there is no reason why 3D printed food couldn’t be the next big step. Right now the technology is effectively rather crude, but there is no reason why the technology can’t be altered to allow more intricate atoms and molecules to be printed in combination.
To the world at large right now, 3D printing is either a vague, minor threat, or a fun gimmick. There is a world just on the horizon however, where you’ll be able to create a design on your home computer in the morning that can be printed in physical space on the other side of the world by the end of the day. Don’t let the scare mongers put you off; 3D printing really is the future!
Ian Appleton works as a freelance copywriter in the most land-locked region of the United Kingdom. He remembers using early 3D scanners and printers at school and would very much like one in the near future so he never again has to worry about running out of pens.