Made online: 3D printing revolution kicks off

A selection of chic-looking cups, all produced using a 3D printer.

A university in Britain has created an unmanned flying vehicle using only a 3D printer. Soon, printers will be churning out fully fledged planes. Is this the next ‘industrial revolution’?

What do a gun, an artificial heart, an unmanned drone and a replica of an 18th Century sculpture have in common? Answer: all have been produced in the last week using a 3D printer.

And that is just the beginning. Last Friday, a drugs company announced a programme that would allow doctors to ‘print’ personalised medicines for their patients. The previous week, an airbus designer declared that by 2050 all of its planes would be a hundred percent printed.

But what could this possibly mean? Will the future be made of origami? No – in the way they look, feel and behave, these printed goods will be almost identical to the ones we are used to today. Yet 3D printing has the potential to change the world as radically as anything currently under development.

Just like the conventional variety, 3D printing begins on a computer. Designers can construct a digital version of any product they want, tweaking its shape, colour and material at a click. Then, when it is finished, they simply click print.

In the printer itself, plastics and metals heated to melting point await. The material is deposited one super-thin layer at a time, gradually building up a physical version of the digital image. In a matter of hours, the object – be it a bracelet or a bicycle – is complete. And not a single human hand has guided the making.

This is not just a clever trick. According to many experts, it is the future of manufacturing. No need for factories; no labour costs; no need to produce things in bulk to save money.

Every item can be designed, personalised and produced by one person and a computer.

This is not good news for everybody. In the developing world, huge numbers of people are employed in manufacturing, often creating goods for companies based in richer countries. If 3D printing lives up to the hype, these jobs could disappear practically overnight.

Nevertheless, designers are hugely excited. Already the potential impact of 3D printing is being compared to that of the industrial revolutions: every office and home could become a factory, capable of producing a potentially limitless range of products.

Making it easy

This changes everything, say futurologists. Imagine: soon we will be able to download shoes from the internet, customise them and simply press print. If a doctor in a remote region urgently needs an instrument for an operation, no problem: it is only a click away. What incredible times we live in, they say.

Incredible, perhaps, say nostalgic types – but also rather sad. The ability to create things with our own two hands is one of the qualities that defines human beings. An object hand-crafted this way has a beauty, distinctiveness and personality that a computer can never match.

You Decide

  1. Would a beautiful piece of jewellery be worth less to you if it was printed from a computer rather than crafted by human hands?
  2. If 3D printing meant less manual work for humans, would that be a good thing or not?

Activities

  1. Make a poster advertising an affordable, easy-to-use 3D printer.
  2. Draw the design for a shoe that could be produced using a 3D printer.

Some People Say...

“Anything made by a computer is soulless.”

What do you think?

Q & A

So when can I start printing my own teapots?
Immediately – if you have a thousand pounds to spare and the technical knowhow. If not, you can still submit your designs to startup companies like Shapeways and Quirky, who promise to print off and sell the best submissions they receive.
Does this mean I’ll have to design all of my possessions myself?
Of course not! 3D printing will allow people to download prototypes in the same way as we now download music and films. With the right software, you might be able to modify it – but most people would probably choose not to.
What’s to stop people illegally downloading designs for free?
Good question – many people in industry are seriously concerned about the opportunities this could offer for piracy. The solution? It’s not yet clear.

Word Watch

Plastics and metals
At the moment, most of the objects produced using 3D printers are made of a plastic especially produced for the purpose. But printers are being developed that will also be able to use metals, ceramics and other materials.
Produce things in bulk
Producing a single unique hammer, for instance, is extremely expensive: the producer must create a mould, buy the equipment necessary for manipulating wood and metal and pay labour costs. But these are mostly one-off costs, so with each hammer produced, the price per hammer gradually decreases. This phenomenon is known as ‘economies of scale,’ and it makes it far more efficient to produce identical objects in bulk. With 3D printing, this would become a far less important factor.
These jobs could disappear
One of the biggest claims made for 3D printing is that it could change the entire global balance of power. With labour costs becoming prohibitively expensive in the West, emerging economies (especially China) have risen fast on the back of an enormous manufacturing boom. 3D printing could bring manufacturing back to Europe and America and undercut the rise of China.
Industrial revolutions
The first industrial revolution came with the invention of mechanised production and the birth of the factory. When Henry Ford developed the assembly line, the second industrial revolution began. The third could be driven partly by 3D printing, but also by advanced robotics and the development of new synthetic materials. Until now, industrial revolutions have moved labour from a small to large scale production; interestingly, recent developments could do exactly the opposite.

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