Star Trek predicted a lot of cool stuff that we take for granted today. Decades before they became a reality we got to see tablet computers, voice recognition, and automated translation technologies.
One of the most groundbreaking ideas from the show has to be the matter replicator. Riffing off the idea that matter and energy are interchangeable (as per Einstein), the replicator will make you anything from pure stored energy. Whether you need clothes or a cup of hot Earl Gray tea, you only have to ask.
If that sort of technology actually existed and we had access to some sort of incredible power source to make it all work, it would change everything about the world. The scarcity principle that drives capitalist markets would radically shift or even collapse. It’s no wonder that Star Trek depicts a “post money” or “post scarcity” world, since it’s a logical effect of replicator technology.
Print the Future
While we don’t actually have anything resembling a Sci-Fi matter replicator, a revolution in manufacturing has been slowly gaining steam and 3D printers are at the vanguard of a radical future we can barely imagine. Nonetheless, I’ll try!
3D What Now?
3D printing is actually pretty much exactly what it sounds like. Think about how your paper printer can make basically any 2D image for you. You can print 100 or 1. You can make 100 that are slightly different or the same. The printer is a self-contained image maker.
A 3D printer does the same thing with 3D objects. You give it a digital plan of what the object should look like and it will make you one from a material like plastic. Although these machines are seriously primitive compared to a lot of current manufacturing technologies, the implications they come with are profound.
How it Works
There are different types of 3D printer, but in general the term refers to machines that perform “additive” manufacturing. This is in contrast to “subtractive” manufacturing. When Michelangelo made David by chipping unwanted marble from a single block, he was doing subtractive manufacturing. He was taking away material until only his desired product was left over. A 3D printer takes material and only adds the necessary stuff to make what you want. Generally this includes scaffolding and the actual object.
Instead of trying to explain it in words, here’s a video that shows a timelapse of a 3D printer in action.
It’s pretty cool right? That’s actually just one design for a machine that 3D prints things, but it’s the sort of printer you can buy and keep on your desk today if you have the wallet for it.
To really understand why 3D printers are such a big deal, we have to do a quick history lesson. Back in the day, before the industrial revolution, things were basically made by artisans using their hands or tools. If you wanted swords made for your army, each one needed a blacksmith to forge it. Since making stuff by hand in this way is slow and requires so much manpower, the products are invariably expensive.
That all changes with the introduction of mechanized mass-production. Using this method you can make millions of cars, toasters, and just about anything else at low cost and high quality. Mass-production is responsible for our way of life and the fact that almost anyone can afford luxuries that make life easier – from TVs to washing machines.
It’s not perfect however. There are many places where mass production doesn’t work. For example, when making prosthetic limbs. Since each person’s limb would have to be different, you can’t use a single mold. Creating a metal die to mass produce a part is incredibly expensive. It’s only worth it if the cost is split among the sale of thousands or millions of products. A 3D printer can make, for example, 10 artificial hands, with each being different, without changing the basic cost.
It’s an incredible milestone in the manufacturing world and the technology is rapidly being deployed all over; in so many places that we could never cover all of them in a short article like this one. So let’s look at some of the more amazing applications for which 3D printers are being used.
The Leg Bone’s Connected to the…
Apart from affordable prosthetics, 3D printing is revolutionizing the field of orthopedics. For example, surgeons can print out anatomical models built from MRI scans to precisely plan surgeries. Metal 3D printers can create perfect customized orthopedic implants at a relatively low cost.
We’ve even seen a few cases where parts of the skeleton are replaced with 3D-printed parts instead of steel plates as in the old days. One man in the US had 75% of his skull replaced with a 3D-printed component.
Apart from metal and bio-compatible plastics, 3D printing technology is moving into printing with biomatter directly. This is referred to as “bioprinting”.
A team at Harvard is making inroads with the printing of blood vessels, which could be perfect for things like heart bypasses. Directly printing bone or very bone-like matter could help people who may otherwise have needed an amputation or who have lost bone due to cancer. 3D-printing of teeth is set to start any day now and already there are experiments with 3D printing of organ structures such as livers and kidneys, which could then be impregnated with stem cells to create a fully functional organ.
In particular, Anthony Atala and his team have done a large part of the work already, as you can see from this TED talk made in 2013.
Consume, Consume, Consume
It’s absolutely amazing to consider what 3D-printing may do for medicine, but what about our daily lives? Hopefully most people won’t need serious medical intervention too often, but every day we make use of a wide range of products that could potentially be made by a 3D printer. Some of them you may never even have considered!
Unless you’re a die-hard nudist you probably like to wear clothes. The creation of material and clothing is one of the earliest applications of industrial production at scale. The term “luddite”, which refers to someone who is anti-progress when it comes to technology, actually comes from a fictional character who was blamed by strikers when cotton weaving machines were smashed – probably the first case of resistance to automation that removed the need for human labor.
Today, it’s likely that most of your clothes have been bought off the shelf. Handmade clothing that’s tailored to suit you is reserved for the well-heeled among us. What if every piece of clothing you owned fit you and ONLY you perfectly? As 3D-printing technology diversifies into different materials, it’s becoming possible to make things like clothing, although even traditional plastic 3D prints have made their way onto the catwalk.
In combination with 3D scanners and smart software we could experience a future where each person can afford to have unique, made-to-order clothing – a far cry from today’s conformist standard. Even before 3D printing we’ve seen something similar. When t-shirt printing became advanced enough it made it possible to create small batches of niche designs, spawning an entire industry.
Today companies like Teepublic offer print-on-demand t-shirts, and perhaps soon we’ll start seeing print-on-demand clothes as a whole. A little further into the future you may be printing your clothes inside your actual closet.
Have a Seat
When we think of 3D printers today we tend to think of relatively small machines that sit on a desk. There’s no reason to limit the size of 3D printers though. Think of a garage-sized 3D printer that will be part of every home. A home-scale factory that just needs power and raw material to make things for you.
One obvious use for such a machine would be to make furniture such as beds or couches. These are ideal since they don’t have complex moving parts. Basically if your desktop 3D printer can make a chair for a dollhouse a garage-sized one could give you something to sit on. Why stop at chairs though? You could make a boat or new body panels for your car. Once you scale up the printer, so many useful things become possible.
Bob the Builder Robot
Speaking of scale, 3D printing technology is already making huge waves in the construction world. Yes, it is entirely feasible to 3D print a house or building. In China a company called WinSun has printed ten houses in 24 hours, proving the concept of cheap construction. Their printer uses recycled material and can print a house in nearly any style. It also works out to be much cheaper and faster than traditional construction. The downside is that it is set to make a lot of construction workers redundant, but affordable, environmentally-friendly housing seems like a worthy trade-off.
One day soon, large constructions such as skyscrapers may be built using exactly the same technology. WinSun’s houses are not yet printed on-site, but are printed in parts which are then assembled at the site, but in the future the whole process may happen where you’ll end up living.
We may not have food replicators, but 3D printers that can make something edible are already here. Early successes were with foods that play nice with the extrusion system that desktop 3D printers already use. Swap out plastic wire with melted chocolate and you can print your own Easter eggs or other confections.
Some 3D printers can print in sugar and do it by weaving intricate geometric shapes, but what if you wanted something like pizza or lasagna? The Foodini is an example of such a machine, which has been shown to print things like ravioli, pizza, and even a burger. It’s still pretty primitive, but clearly the concept can work.
As supporting technologies also advance you may one day have a machine in your home that makes complete, delicious meals out of raw materials such as protein and fats, without the need to kill any animals or harvest any veggies.
Printing a chair, a bumper, or cellphone holder is pretty easy. They aren’t complicated structures with moving parts or electronics. If you want to make an electronic gadget with a 3D printer you still have to buy the actual guts off a shelf. While there are 3D printers that can print in metal, getting one to print working circuitry or (gasp!) microchips would be a true revolution.
That’s starting to change and there are already experimental systems that can print basic circuits. The ability to print electronic components would open up so many possibilities it’s hard to fathom. For one thing, it may be possible to print circuits on things like contact lenses and in clothes. Apart from that, you may do things like print out your own smartphone using an advanced multi-material 3D printer.
One very attractive thing about 3D printers is that they have the potential to be very eco-friendly. Mass production, however, also leads to a lot of disposability and a lot of waste. One day when you print clothing or parts you may be able to put them right back into the printer when they wear out, where it may process them back into raw material. Although that would still require new energy, if we’ve found better sustainable sources of power in the future these technologies could work very well together.
Some present-day 3D printers are already playing with the concept:
The ProtoCycler is a 3D printer that will take your plastic bottles and turn them into filament to print all sorts of other things. You can also throw your botched 3D printing jobs right back into the grinder to try again. Given how pricey filament can be that’s a fantastic idea and the printer should pay for itself eventually if you print a lot.
The Radical Future
Along with other speculative technologies such as nanobot manufacturing and AI-driven production, we may one day live in a world where no one has to work in order to take care of their needs. Automated farming (or vat-grown food) and automatic manufacturing systems could provide a universal and efficient way for every person to sustain themselves. It would be far greener than the way we do things today and would turn the entire view of what a person should be doing with their lives on its head.
Imagine a world where people worked only because they wanted to; where you could dedicate your life to the arts or a hobby because you never have to worry about basic necessities. It could mean the end of inequality and the ultimate optimization of human economic happiness.
The Future is Now
It’s all pretty exciting, right? The good news is that you don’t just have to read about it. Home 3D printers may be basic, but it’s still an incredibly impressive technology to play with. Early 3D printers that were sold to the public were, shall we say, “rough” around the edges and required that you assemble them to one degree or another. Now home 3D printers are becoming as plug-and-play as microwaves or TVs. The prices have also come down aggressively as (ironically) mass production ramps up. For about $200 you can actually own a basic desktop 3D printer. The best-selling unit on Amazon goes for about that price and can print anything you can fit onto the print-bed.
If you spend a little more you can get something way more polished like the XYZprinting da Vinci mini 3D Printer.
That’s half the price of a gaming console, so really there are fewer and fewer excuses left not to try a technology that will change the world for you.