Think before you 3D print

By Robert Hickson 24/03/2013

Oh, the wondrous things coming off printers these days – houses, bone, and gun parts . See more examples at Mashable. Some gush about 3D printing following the personal computer trajectory

However, Wired has an article on the future of 3D printing (aka additive manufacturing) that is less bullish about it being the future of manufacturing. While exhibiting plenty of growth potential, the report endorses an earlier Deloitte analysis that concludes that while many people will soon be able to buy their own 3D printer, they won’t be setting up their own manufacturing company. This is largely due to the costs or access to materials to replace many household objects, and the inability to scale up production. As with current home printers, the costs of the consumables rather than the printer will be the limiting factor.

Many large corporations, such as Boeing, are already using the technology to produce prototypes, which are then manufactured by more conventional means. And new services are likely to pop up so you can go and get a replacement part at your local garage or home maintenance store. Remember when you could buy a new element for your kettle rather than having to buy a new kettle? Maybe those days will be coming back.

As an article in Slate noted  one of the longer term benefits of cheap 3D printing may be to help inspire school students to think about industrial design. However, such classes will need to have a stronger theoretical and intellectual underpinning than the woodwork and metal work classes I took at school to have a more revolutionary effect. Taking home crude plastic rabbit sculptures and other doodads to show mum & dad won’t cut it.

Due to costs 3D printing probably won’t have the same influence or reach as Meccano, which reputably inspired several generations of physical scientists and engineers. But it, along with other aspects of “maker” and “hacker” culture are likely to influence how the current and next generation think about manipulating the physical world and designing futures.

A somewhat tongue-in-cheek view of future developments in 3D printing to keep an eye out for is also available on the Wired website.


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