My first encounter, like many, with the idea of 3D printing or rapid prototyping was while watching Jurassic Park III back in 2001. In the film, a group of palaeontologists re-create a velociraptor’s resonating chamber using a 3D printer. I didn’t think about the technology again until May last year, when I wrote about it in terms of what it could mean for B2B companies and marketers and mentioned customisable LEGO going straight to inboxes.
From left to right: the first two cases were created using 3D printers and the one on far right is the original. Photo by AaltoFablab used under CC BY 2.0.
3D printing has come along a great deal since then. The technology has really taken off, with New Scientist declaring it a “second industrial revolution”. Stories about its many useful, weird, amazing and controversial aspects have become a regular feature on many technology focused news outlets.
A new, digital technology for the real world
There has been a great deal of focus on how 3D printing or additive manufacturing (as it is often called when talking about processes involving metal or ceramics, rather than plastic) will be able to bring greater efficiency to manufacturing and what it means for consumers. But what about businesses that aren’t manufacturers?
In the office today, there are many objects that could be 3D printed onsite, rather than bought and shipped. Nokia has already released designs for 3D-printed mobile phone cases, and general carry cases could be easily put together.
Beyond containers – from cases to cups – it would be feasible in the near future to upscale printing efforts to include items such as chairs and shelves. And with companies working on printable electronics, it’s not hard to imagine companies printing basic peripherals like keyboards and mice on an as-needed basis.
At the moment, the cost of 3D printing is such that it is only of real use to manufacturers and home hobbyists. But the cost is already coming down, and will continue to do so:
“What used to cost hundreds of thousands of dollars can now be had for $15K, and a slew of emerging companies (over 30 at last count) are aiming to put a basic 3D printer on your desk for the cost of an iPad, about $1,000.”
Josh Wolfe, Forbes
The plastic resin used by some consumer printers can cost $55 per pound. But these are costs that are coming down. And cost is also not the only reason why 3D printing may appeal to businesses – the convenience factor may play a big role too. As an example, the Economist recently detailed the predicament of Deon de Beer of Vaal University of Technology and his team. Finding themselves without a particular type of spanner while setting up a lab in the mainly rural area of Upington, in the Northern Cape, the team printed the spanner and got the job done, as opposed to waiting days for one to be delivered.
Also, early pioneers of additive manufacturing are not all interested in locking the designs away; there are many open source/public domain designs of everyday objects – and even more complex ones, such as this prosthetic hand – being made available. And several printer companies have designs available on their websites – so the skills required of users may not be much different from using a regular network printer.
Still, it will be some time before anything resembling a “replicator” (as shown in Star Trek) will become a reality. But even printed chairs are far cooler than customisable LEGO in your inbox.