Imagine ordering a pair of sunglasses online and then having it magically appear on your desk hours later. Thanks to new developments in 3D printing, this type of cyber-consumerism could soon become a reality.
3D printing creates three-dimensional objects layer-by-layer using light or heat-activated materials sold in cartridges. Right now, the handful of 3D printers on the market create only plastic toys or trinkets. But the potential is limitless. This technology has huge implications for manufacturers, consumers and perhaps even the planet as it becomes easier to “print out” larger and more complex objects.
3D printing today
A number of companies are selling desktop 3D printers designed for the average Joe, but they’re still not cheap. Rock Hill recently began offering a system called Cube that carries a $1,299 pricetag while MakerBot has its Thing-O-Matic 3D printer kit for $1,099 and its fully-assembled Replicator for $1,749. Thingiverse.com already provides a long list of trinkets and small objects that can be printed out using these devices. But this is just scratching the surface of what 3D printing can offer.
3D printing is most commonly used for creating quick product prototypes. This allows engineers to check how different parts fit and work together before committing to expensive production. Scientists can also use 3D printing to create full-sized copies of bones or other specimens and architects can use the technology to show scale-models to their clients.
As 3D printing becomes more affordable, more small businesses and inventors will be able to benefit from it. This could better foster innovation among great minds that don’t have access to massive bank accounts. 3D printing could also lead to a new creative outlet. Graphic designers and sculptors can create objects and print them out for galleries or clients, adding a powerful, new medium to their toolbox.
This new printing technology is based on additive manufacturing, which is a more efficient way to create products. Traditional manufacturing involves taking large amounts of materials and whittling them down, which produces a lot of waste. Additive manufacturing, however, creates the product layer-by-layer so there is no waste. And in theory, the fewer resources being consumed by manufacturers will help reduce the strain humans continue to place on the planet.
Also, if 3D printing is wholly embraced by manufacturers, they will be able to create goods at far lower costs. Warehouses won’t be needed to store spare parts since these items can simply be
saved in a database. If a consumer needs a part for a product that has been discontinued, they can just download the item and print it out.
Shopping and pirating
It’s impossible to tell how far 3D printing will take us. Could we one day be printing out the latest fashions to wear that day? What about heavy-duty items like car parts? This technology could also offer consumers the chance to even customize the items they want to purchase in unique ways. But why would people even bother paying money for products that could be scanned, replicated and pirated the same way music and movies are today? The torrent site Piratebay announced earlier this year that it was offering a new category called “physibles” dedicated to 3D printable objects. Pirating is likely to be just one of the challenges companies will encounter once this technology really takes off.
About the Author:
Jake Downs primarily writes and reports for Cushing, a printing company. When he’s not working, he can be found playing with the latest Apple gadgets.
Image Credit: WikiMedia Foundation
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