I first heard about 3D printing in 2009, at a locative media workshop in Delhi conducted by artist Matt Kenyon. At the time I was blown away by the idea, especially of the RepRap machine – an open source desktop 3D printer capable of replicating itself by printing all of the plastic parts necessary to build one. It seemed to me something straight out of a Borges story, as so many technologies are. Today however, the conversation about 3D printing and changes it is going to make in manufacturing is alive and thriving. There is the 3D printer that prints chocolate, the man who printed an AK47, the 83-year-old who had his jaw replaced by a 3D-printed mandible, and of course there is a need to relook at copy right and patent laws in relation to 3D printing.
What is 3D printing? 3D printing is a process by which, a 3D printer can read a blueprint of an object, and build it by adding layer upon layer of material, a process commonly known as ‘additive manufacturing’. There are also 3D scanners that allow you to scan an object, generate a CAD file to create a replicable object.
Many believe that the 3D revolution can transform the relationship between the developed world and emerging economies, with manufacturing processes shifting from cheaper options in the emerging world back to the developed world. With the price of 3D printers falling to as little as $500, many others believe that the 3D printing revolution will enter individual homes. In an interview with Wired writer David Rowan, Lisa Harouni of Digital Forming, talks about 3D printing giving rise to bespoke manufacturing.
“This technology has been around for 20 years, but it’s about to hit the public in a big way….It’s going to affect every facet of life — letting you manufacture bespoke products on demand that can be customised for an individual, and giving designers the freedom to make complex parts with less waste of material and a lower carbon footprint because it’s made locally. If, let’s say you have guests coming for dinner but you realise you don’t have enough plates, you’ll be able to go online and download products to your home printer like you do music today. But this technology can also custom-manufacture body parts, medical devices, lifestyle goods — anything we use to express ourselves, from home furnishings to personalised iPhone covers. It means you can create bespoke products en masse.”
Tech writer, Ryan Whitwam, has another view. According to him the 3D printing revolution won’t happen in our garages but at local professional 3D printers or hardware stores.
“If you look at the kinds of objects being printed in these low-cost 3D printers you will see art projects, semi-professional design work, and knickknacks. Printing an MP3 player shaped like a cassette tape might be neat (I think so), but it’s not an example of practical at-home use….at-home 3D printing will remain the domain of enthusiasts. Most people will be perfectly happy to buy items that were printed elsewhere with higher quality machinery than they themselves have the desire or inclination to run.”
Are the likely uses of 3D printing, such as spare parts and artistry, killer use cases for the average consumer? Time will tell. Till then, we have Thomas Thwaites who built a toaster, from scratch – beginning by mining the raw materials and ending with a product that can sell at Argos.