Printing the future

The technology for 3D printing feels like science fiction to me, but it’s already here. A 3D printer can make nearly anything you’d like by extruding paste from a nozzle that can move in all three directions. After the paste hardens, you have a thing, whatever you envisioned.

RepRap from Adrian Bowyer on Vimeo.

The above video comes from the RepRap project, an Open Source 3D printer that can build itself (just add some off-the-shelf electronics). Once you’ve got one, you can make more for your friends. There are several places that you can buy the printed components from, or kits that include the electronics, or even assembled ready-to-go printers.

The RepRap and its relatives print in plastic and are cheap enough for hobbyist use. What can you make with them? More RepRaps, of course, but also gears, tools, parts for other equipment, toys, art, jewelry, even musical instruments.

There are fancier 3D printers out there as well. These print in metal, glass, or ceramic. For most of these, the metal particles are embedded in a paste that is baked out after printing, fusing the metal (much like Precious Metal Clay).

The engineering aspects of these printers are fascinating, but the social aspects are where the science fiction ideas can really flourish. Besides the Open Source movement already described (printers for all!), there are companies that will do 3D printing for you if you can’t afford a printer or want to do small runs or use more complicated materials.

What happens when nobody is dependent on a big corporation for bits and bobs and parts? Nothing needs to be shipped: just send the specs to the local printer. Cory Doctorow thinks hard about that topic in his novel Makers, but there are many other ways such a social/cultural development could go.

Then there’s other things to print besides metal and plastic. Anything can be extruded. How about food? Taking the printing-of-organics to an extreme, how about 3D printing for replacement organs?

What do you think? What role are 3D printers going to play in the near future? Will everyone have one? Will they be used to print even wilder things?

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