Just over a month ago, I stepped into the future. After a few weeks of construction, I turned on my MakerBot Thing-o-matic 3D printer and printed a vase (watch one in action here). The process was not much more complicated than printing a Word document. All I basically had to do was open a file in my viewing software, connect my printer and click print. Fifteen minutes later, I had a plastic vase on my desk.

3D printing has been hailed as the next big advance in manufacturing and consumption. Companies such as New York-based Shapeways will print models on request and ship them globally, and have also started a database of user-contributed items for anyone to print. MakerBot likewise created the Thingiverse, a community library of printable models ranging from robot parts to shot glasses. Furthermore, two years ago, if you wanted a 3D printer, you paid serious money or built your own; now, for a few hundred pounds, anyone can buy a pre-assembled desktop printer. Proponents of the technology tend to focus on the user-based consumption model this creates: People can eschew mass-produced items and produce their own, or print repair parts for broken products instead of throwing them away.

Currently, this vision is somewhat limited by the capabilities desktop printers. Commercial printers variously print in metals, thermoplastics, thermoset  resins – even chocolate – and can print entire moving assemblies in one go, pre-assembled. The largest domestic printers, though, have build envelopes about the size of a loaf of bread, and they almost all print in a single material, usually ABS or PLA plastic, which is fed into the printer as a filament, melted and laid down in thin consecutive layers to build up an object. Users can thus only print fairly small static or clip-together objects. Alongside plenty of other printing enthusiasts, I am working to convert the Thing-o-matic to print in multiple materials simultaneously, which will allow one to print objects with moving parts. My intention is that my printer could one day print a functioning clock in a single go, which I could then hang on the wall with literally no post-processing.

This idea leads to the crux of 3D printing problems: It’s not easy yet. It’s still largely the domain of techies who are ready to tinker with their machines. (My machine needs a lot more work before it prints smoothly.) Even worse, it’s only truly powerful for those who know how to use 3D modelling software. To go from a drawing of even a simple object, like a cup, to a printable 3D model of the same object, means using programs which are unintuitive and take months to master. In the absence of an easy-to-use modelling program, casual would-be printer users are limited to printing objects designed by others.

This hurdle will fall. The Leap, a new motion-tracking device which promises gesture-based computing, has already been touted for controlling intuitive modelling software. Once anyone can design objects, though, a new problem arises. Currently, online model databases limit what can be posted: No weapons are allowed. But with a personal printer and simple software, anyone could design and print a knife, or even, as Texas resident Cody Wilson has already done, a functional semi-automatic AR-15 rifle, through which he has fired 660 rounds with no mishaps.

3D printing displays serious promise. Commercial and scientific teams have printed astonishing objects; a fully functional prosthetic titanium jaw for an 83-year-old Dutch woman, a concrete house, personalised hearing aid housings; and more are planned, including functional human organs created by printing cells. It also threatens the established manufacturer-based commercial economy, in both good and bad ways. Who doesn’t want a world where you can print your own possessions? Who, though, wants a world where anyone can print a gun? 3D printing offers us a powerful path into the future. Let’s hope we’re mature enough to use it well.

3D printer - Don Debold

Photo credit: Flickr Commons

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