3D Printing: What does the future hold?

When Cody Wilson of Texas made the blueprints of his 3D Printed ‘Liberator’ pistol available online in early 2013, the cheap plastic product sent shockwaves around the world. Only a few had been aware of the scientific innovation that has been revolutionising science and industry for decades prior to the ‘printed gun’. 3D printing, or ‘additive manufacturing’ involves using computer aided design, or CAD, to layout the blueprints for anything that is wanted and then inputting those designs into printers that can range from massive behemoths to desktop size. The process then moves to ‘layering’ materials of durable metals and plastic on top of each other until a finished product is created, much more efficiently and cheaply than before. Now that this technology is being sold to regular consumers and not just industry, questions have been raised about the impact on the market, the impact on product production, and most alarmingly the impact on safety.

The scientific industry was taking advantage of this process for a long time prior to the rest of the world’s realisation of its potential. It had been creating everything from hearing aids to new organs to prototypes for artificial limbs. The aspect of the design process that allows users to tailor the product as it is being created means that soldier who have been victims to IED explosions and other trauma could receive ‘tailor made’ limbs that function just as well as the overly expensive artificial prosthetics that are being used today. Scientists have been able to design organs using cells harvested from people who need the transplant, meaning there is no chance of rejection. In the future prices for organ replacements as well as waiting lists could shrink in the face of the 3D printing revolution.

A selling point for this type of production focuses on being able to customise the product as it is being ‘printed’, which means it is attractive to those industries that use complex parts and machinery. There are rumours that the US military uses 3D printers to create weapons parts in the field, and NASA plans to take advantage of the relatively room that the printer takes up to send it into space for use by astronauts. It truly is an innovation that extends into every space and for every use, from car parts to plastic toys; everyone wants to reap the benefits of a cheaper production process and more portable machinery.

A more bizarre outcome of 3D printing concerns foodstuffs, as a new start-up company called ‘Modern Meadow’, funded by billionaire philanthropist Peter Thiel, plans to create ‘printed meat’. They aim to reduce the environmental impact of the regular meat production and transportation process.

There are, of course negative to 3D printing. As we have seen, the blueprints of the 3D gun created worries about the accessibility of fire arms to the general population, unchecked by control laws and invisible to scanners that are used in airports and body searches around the world. These developments caused the US Department of Homeland Security to release a warning about the dangers of such products, citing public safety risks and the difficulties they face monitoring file sharing as reasons to be wary. The wide availability of 3D printed guns and bullets has led to fears of terrorists and organised crime syndicated using blueprints to make their own guns, as well as other products, and this worry led to Wilson withdrawing his blueprints from the internet after significant pressure.

With 3D printers now flooding the consumer marketplace, it is impossible to predict what effects this innovation will have on industry, the home and security, Will mass manufacturing suffer when people can print out what they need at home? And does that mean that shop bought goods will become cheaper in the face of unique, customisable products? No one really knows. All that the experts, scientists, economists and entrepreneurs can say is that this heralds a new age in cheap, efficient production, and the ability of anyone, anywhere to create something completely unique by simply pressing ‘print’.


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