Tuesday, 20 September 2011

Once more unto the breach:* Printing the next revolution

Matthew Tracey

3D printing will change your world.

With that bombshell out of the way, let's work out how and why.

3D printing, or additive manufacturing technology, is very similar to traditional 2D printing. 2D printers overlay ink on paper to produce physical representations of a digital file. 3D printers use similar technology but utilise metals, plastics and even food as their 'ink'. Where traditional printers could use a variety of file types (such as .doc, .jpeg or .html) to produce a printed page, 3D printers use computer-aided design (CAD) files that contain the physical specifications of the object to be printed. 3D printers use these files to construct an exact copy of the object, layer by layer. The software in the printer transforms a CAD file containing the dimensions of 3D object into slices. So, if you were printing a scale model of the Empire State Building, the printer would squirt out layer upon layer so as to construct the model from the ground floor to the point. In combination, these layers produce a tangible 3D object.

3D printing in action

Questioning 100 years of manufacturing history

The history of manufacturing is essentially a history of economies of scale. Revolutionised by the production methods of the Model T, Ford utilised scale in such a way as to reduce the marginal costs of production with each and every finished vehicle. At least theoretically, large-scale manufacturing means lower production costs and, in turn, lower purchase prices for consumers.

Let us be daring for a moment and dispense with one hundred years of manufacturing theory and practice. What if marginal costs were constant instead of depreciative? How would that change how we operate as a society?

Say for example you're at home and you've just finished dinner. You're loading all of your dirty dishes into the dishwasher and you find a broken locking mechanism that keeps the squall inside the dishwasher otherwise contained. Instead of sending for a replacement part from the manufacturer and waiting the requisite time for it to arrive, imagine downloading the CAD file from the manufacturer's website and printing off a replacement. Online technology blog Ars Technica has opined that just as online shopping made bricks-and-mortar retail stores appear quaint, 3D printing will do the same in respect of waiting for shipping to arrive from an online retailer. Importantly, 3D printing means that the cost of producing the first object is the same as the cost of producing the thousandth. This equation is perfect for individual consumers who only need one object.

The response from industry and what lies ahead

The rights associated with patents, copyrights, registered designs and trademarks could be infringed through 3D printing. For example, several websites currently offer unauthorised replicas of designer goods in CAD files for download. the3dstudio offers a CAD file of a Mario Bellini Ultrabellini chair for US$20 where a set of four authentic chairs retails for in excess of US$1000.

Unlike Sony in respect of VHS and Napster in respect of MP3s, rights holders have not yet brought 3D printing under any real fire. This is partly due to the lack of consumer-priced devices in the marketplace. However, since websites such as the3dstudio essentially operate as a vehicle similar to Napster (in that they provide a central source for the distribution of authorised and non-authorised material), legal intervention is increasingly likely. Analogous to the recent iiNet litigation, there is a risk that any site which hosts CAD files could be the subject of secondary infringement and authorisation claims. Like YouTube in response to Viacom, online distribution portals may need to have infringement detection and take-down mechanisms in place in order to assuage the appetites of litigious rights holders. However, like many industries' adaptation to new technologies, there will inevitably be winners and losers.

The scope of 3D printing is set to expand to compromise other traditional aspects of mass manufacturing. By way of example, Cornell University has had some success at producing food with 3D printers. The ramifications of printing food will stretch far and wide and will undoubtedly cause us to reconsider how we think about farming and famine.

The internet has ideologically entrenched our demand to have anything anytime anywhere. Traditionally, this demand related only to information. It is now clear, however, that in the future we will be able to print our cake and eat it too.

*'Once more unto the breach' is from the 'Cry God for Harry, England, and Saint George!' speech of Shakespeare's Henry V, Act III, 1598.

Video by 3DCreationLab, published under the standard YouTube licence.


  1. that's one handy technology. but they question is that where can you use the finish product? are those for decorative purposes only?

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