The Future of 3D Printing
Old Synergasm Post
Originally published January 2, 2012
Imagine that Apple has just released the iPhone 16; instead of the crazies lining up the night before outside of the Apple stores, they instead sit behind a computer waiting for the clock to read 12:00 AM. As soon as it does, they click the link on Apple’s website that downloads the CAD plans to their 3D printers. The 3D printer then begins laying out the different materials (pulled from your personal store of the most commonly used elements from the periodic table) and “prints” the new iPhone in layers. So how far away is this technology?
While 3D printers have been around since the ‘80s; they’ve been known as rapid prototyping machines for sometime and have largely remained in the domain of model shops that could afford their large price tags. What appears to have been happening though, is that with their rise in popularity, they’re beginning to transform from solely being prototyping machines to being considered for use in “additive manufacturing” The Economist contrasts this to the “subtractive manufacturing” that occurs today.
For me it started with a book: Printing in Plastic: Build Your Own 3D Printer (Technology in Action) Essentially it uses standard parts to convert long plastic ligaments (the same plastic that LEGOs are made out of) into whatever type of object you’d like to create. It has a heating element that melts the plastic and then in layers prints whatever you’ve programmed using a CNC type of setup…except with a heating element instead of routers. Once done you have a solid piece of plastic. But we’re not just limited to plastic! From custom prosthetic limbs to building houses, solar-powered sand-to-glass, a proprietary material that’s hard enough to replicate a wrench, all the way to a fly-able, model-sized airplane, you have choices!
So how do you get your hands on this tech? MakerBot sells their Thing-O-Matic® for $1,299. If you’d prefer to build one yourself, you can get the book I mentioned above or check out one or both of the open-source machines available online; fab@home has plans, Printrbot will soon be selling their version, but my favorite is RepRap! Simply put RepRap created their entire machine so that all of its parts could be printed on another RepRap. Basically it’s a self-replicating machines (assisted by you, of course). The cool thing about that is if you want to give a friend a 3D printer, you just print up the pieces for him!
This may seem like an odd post for a blog ostensibly about management and education! Here’s the tie-in: our schools today were designed to produce factory workers. In a world where manufacturing is fully automated, creativity becomes ever more important. Everyone other than the teacher’s union agrees that our schools are broken. Technology like the 3D printer will only exacerbate that problem. The solution isn’t to try and stop this change though…rather it’s important to understand what’s coming and design a system to avoid future obstacles. What do you think? Will the 3D printer be a standard home-based piece of technology anytime soon? What will it mean for work forces around the world?