3D Printing: Production of the Future, Here Today

3D Printing May be the Way of the Future, but When?

There has been a lot of news in the past few years over something called “3D Printing." There are doctors claiming to be able to print blood vessels and cheap prosthetics, jewelers who say they can replace lost jewelry in just a few hours, or designers who insist on printing new kitchen appliances. In fact, in the next few years, someone may even successfully print a car.

Now, the first question that must be answered is “What is 3D printing?” The short answer is that 3D printing is a process of making three dimensional solid objects from a digital file. To start the process, assume you are an artist who just drew a character. You have the character, that’s great, but you want to see it in the real world. You would first enter the character into a 3D modeling program. This is software often used by architects in order to show off plans for a building before any ground is broken. Once you have the thing you want to print (in this case the character you drew) as a 3D model, it must be saved as a file for the printer to use. Once that it done, it’s as simple as making sure that there is enough plastic in the printer to print your object.

On a more technical level, when the image, character, or object is being prepared for printing, the modeling software divides the model into hundreds, or even thousands, of horizontal slices. These slices are then read by the printer, which assembles them in the right order. The quality of the final product depends greatly on the type of 3D printer used, the materials that the printer uses to make the object it’s printing, as well as the complexity of the object in question. A geometric shape is going to be leagues easier for a 3D printer to handle than a twisting tree with lots of gnarled branches and curvy vines.

There has been a lot of talk about the future with 3D printing, but, despite what proponents claimed when 3D printing first started becoming “a thing,” doctors aren’t 3D printing scalpels in the OR, mechanics aren’t printing car parts, and, for the most part, 3D printing remains well out of the publics hands due to high costs and low quality consumer versions of the technology.

All that said, 3D printing is still very much in its infancy and to dismiss it as a fad would be like dismissing planes because the Wright brothers crashed theirs on their first flight. Just because the technology hasn’t quite caught up with the promises of the industry doesn’t mean 3D printing doesn’t have the potential to completely revolutionize the world.

One obvious way 3D printing would change things is in manufacturing. If 3D printing is widely adopted, the developed world could see a huge slash in the price of goods. What if, when you want to buy a Blu-Ray player off Amazon, instead of having to wait a few days for it to show up, instead, all you got was an email. Inside this email is the data files needed to print out the machine. Instead of adding in shipping and labor costs to the price, all the consumer would pay is the cost of the raw materials and the Intellectual Property, or IP. This could drastically reduce the supply chain that exists between the consumer and the seller. Another benefit would be increased levels of customization. Items could be tailored to an individual's needs with just a few edits to the code. As customization becomes the norm, companies will compete with each other to see who can best allow the consumer to build their ideal product.

Perhaps the biggest impact would be on medicine. The idea of growing people for their organs is an idea straight out of science fiction, but with 3D printing, we aren’t that far off. Early in 2016, scientists were able to successfully print an ear, complete with bone, muscles, and living tissue. This is a huge breakthrough as, while living tissue had already been successfully printed before, nothing of this size had survived. The greater the advancements in this technology, the closer we as a species come to being able to print out livers, hearts, lungs, or even brains. A world where no one would ever need to wait for a transplant is quickly becoming possible because of the breakthroughs of 3D printing.

Now, as wonderful as 3D printing is, there is no doubt that some things have to be carefully considered as the technology continues to improve. The first is that commercial 3D printing opens the door to piracy on a level unseen previously. Currently, if you wanted to download a movie, video game, or television show, you would go to certain websites and download them. But internet pirates would still have to go out to the store and buy physical things. If commercial 3D printing becomes widespread, what’s to stop internet pirates from illegally 3D printing something? 

Now, it’s silly to assume that someone would actually be able to 3D print a car illegally; the amount of raw materials and space needed would be enormous; there's no way the average internet pirate could illegally 3D print a big-ticket item like that. But for toy makers, it’s a real concern. If they're selling an action figure of the latest Marvel hero for $25, and you, the parent of an obsessed 8 year old could find the file online for free and only pay maybe $5 in material costs, what would you pick? This raises an especially large issue for companies like Lego whose products would almost certainly be copied instantly.

Another large concern would be safety. Since 2015, guns have been printed by 3D printers. There is nothing inherently wrong with gun ownership, but the idea that anyone could go online and print out a deadly weapon without the government having any idea should throw up a lot of red flags. Right alongside guns is the notion of 3D printed drugs. 3D printing can be used to print medication, and that has a lot of potentially useful side effects; the medicine could be specifically engineered for you. But just as medicines could be 3D printed, so too could illegal substances. No child is going to be playing with their parents' 3D printer and become a cocaine addict, but the idea of readily accessible, unregulated medicine recipes floating around on the internet is disturbing.

Even more chilling, 3D printing has the potential to devastate the developing world. If people can produce their own products in their homes, that will have huge impacts on countries who rely on making the goods we buy to sustain their economies. China, India, Bangladesh, and other manufacturing-based countries could lose millions of jobs and have a real economic crisis. Now loss of jobs has never been enough of a reason to slow technological progress before, and I doubt it will stop 3D printing momentum, but if China is looking at losing huge numbers of workers, expect them to apply a lot of pressure to stop 3D printing.

Technology is moving at incredible speeds, and in the next few decades we will be seeing huge advances. Things like self-driving cars and 3D printing will have huge impacts on the global economy and society as a whole. Make no mistake, they are coming. All that remains now is to see how we react.