By Richard Romano on November 1st, 2012
Last weekend, I was talking to a friend of mind, who happens to be on a waiting list for a kidney transplant. We’ve known each other for about 15 years; he was my editor back in the day at Micro Publishing News, and he had the unique talent of making me sound coherent—think about these blog posts or my other WTT stories and you can see why he was vastly underpaid. Anyway, we have always shared an interest in new technologies, and he was telling me about developments in the world of 3D printing (which I have been somewhat following, albeit not rigorously), especially in the potential ability to print actual human organs—like kidneys—from a patient’s own cells. Sound like science-fiction? Not really, as some recent articles and talks have pointed out. 3D printing has also been used to output, from a printer, a bewildering variety of physical three-dimensional objects, including, but not limited to, loudspeakers, scientific laboratory supplies, a nano-sized racing car, chocolates, a transplantable human jawbone, dinosaurs, and even—disturbingly—guns.
Very very basically, a 3D printer works via a process called additive manufacturing (AM). The principle behind AM is to deposit layer upon layer of a material (a liquid, powder, etc.) to build up an object. A good analogy are the stalactites or stalagmites (I can never remember which ones go up and which go down) you find in caves. They formed over hundreds or thousands of years by dripping water containing dissolved minerals that gradually piled up to form the familiar pointed cone-like structures. Likewise, a 3D printer deposits layer upon layer of a substance (again, ink, powder, human cells, metals, etc.), driven by data from a computer-assisted drawing (CAD) file. (More info on the specifics of the process here.)
One potential downside—economically—to the emergence (and potential proliferation of DIY 3D printing) is that many products may someday not need to be conventionally manufactured or mass-produced, as individuals with a simple $150 home 3D printer can print out whatever objects they may want. While today we are worried about losing manufacturing jobs to China, someday we may be losing them to the home printer. (And the printing industry has already been there, done that.)
Think of it as “on-demand manufacturing,” and the analogy to what has happened in the printing industry, with short-run on-demand printing—either in the home or office, or commercially using digital presses—largely replacing long-run offset printing. There will also be an interesting conversation about intellectual property rights. People have no qualms today about wantonly exchanging music or movie files. What happens when people have no qualms about exchanging object files? Who will own the rights (probably a patent) to the CAD file used to generate a 3D object? It will be interesting to see how all this plays out.
Anyway, as for the environmental issues, the TD Daily article tells us:
It’s worth pointing out that a home-fabricating revolution, accompanied by decentralized, local manufacturing, has the potential to significantly reduce the carbon footprint of the average widget. (Especially with printers that utilize materials like plant-based plastics.)
Could be. But there will also likely be a lot of household waste produced; let’s not for a moment imagine that every single 3D-printed object will come out of the printer perfectly formed. (Whilst talking with my friend about 3D-printed kidneys, my immediate question was, “What would be the equivalent of a Courier substitution?”) Think of it as 3D makeready, and what good is a partially produced object? It’s all still very much over the horizon, so it’s well-nigh impossible to determine just what the net environmental impact will be.
Some other areas are worth looking into as well:
One of the most significant areas of eco-potential for three-dimensional printing technology is in green building. Currently, green homes built through the process of prefabrication save considerable resources over the average site-built home, but they’re often shipped over long distances, upping the carbon footprint of even the most environmentally friendly materials.
the D-Shape, with the ability to go where it’s needed.
The D-Shape uses very low levels of energy as compared to traditional manufacturing processes, and creates a kind of artificial sandstone similar to marble, effectively returning any type of sand, dust or gravel back to its original state as a compact stone. (So when Jimi Hendrix sang about castles made of sand, hey, maybe he was on to something).
Monolite, the company behind the printer, sees the D-Shape as providing low-cost access to building for people in need around the world. But the company would also be happy to fab an super-artistic staircase for you, or even a futuristic gazebo, such as the Radiolaria.
Ultimately, advances in 3D printing and home manufacturing are exciting from a technological standpoint, although the economic and legal implications—as I mentioned—are rather daunting. If we thought digital movies and music were the Wild West, we ain’t seen nothing yet. It’s going to evolve, and it’s going to evolve quickly. As it does evolve, we need to ensure that it remains as “green” as possible.