Future printed in 3D
Houses built in 24 hours. Downloadable prescription drugs. Your ordinary shoe-maker scanning your feet in store to deliver you overnight your brand new pair of shoes matching your size and movement specifications. On-demand limbs made of layers of living cells. Mini food-printing factory in every kitchen. As $7 billion worth 3D printer industry is gaining ground, some of those things are already happening. And there are people who are convinced that the market for 3D printers will only be getting bigger.
A 3D-printed factory
“The evangelists of ‘the fourth industrial revolution’ in front of our eyes, claim that 3D printing is a key tool, thanks to which we are going to keep on evolving as mature 21-century societies,” says Przemek Jaworski, the chairman and founder of one of the leading Polish 3D Printing companies, ZMorph.
3D printing is not in fact a new concept. Those devices have been around for a while. But there has been a major shift. “Till very recently 3D printing has mainly been used for pre-production prototyping. Today – it is used to manufacture final products. And that opens up a lot of possibilities for personalization. For instance, we will be able to order shoes, sport accessories, and wearables, tailored to the shape of our anatomy. And the process won’t involve any additional costs,” explains Jaworski.
Apart from personalization, 3D printing could eliminate many of the sore points of the industry. For instance, spare parts – it is not always easy to find precisely the ones you want. Sometimes they are nowhere to be found. Now they could simply be printed. 3D manufacturing also eliminates the need for outsourcing. Products could be printed locally which means cutting shipping costs. Besides, 3D printing allows manufacturers to minimize the cost of storage – with rapid production a lot of things can be made on demand. And this could significantly accelerate product development process.
3D printers could simply make production more effective – you manufacture precisely the things you need without wasting the remnants of the materials, and exactly when you need them. And, what is crucial - exactly when the customer needs them.
3D printing is not just about industrial manufacturing. There is also a market for low-volume consumer fabrication. And Przemek Jaworski knows it all too well. Jaworski was the first person to bring RepRaps to the Polish market. RepRap is not your ordinary 3D printer – it is a general-purpose self-replicating machine. And neither is Zmorph. “The printer is above all, multifunctional, which means it can become a different machine after a simple reconfiguration,” says Jaworski.
ZMorph (the name takes its origins in the Greek word ‘morphe’, which means ‘shape’ or ‘form’. The ‘Z’ is derived from Cartesian coordinate system (XYZ) and signifies third dimension. The name itself means “the one that creates objects in three dimensions”.) is a pioneer in low-volume consumer printing. The company has a global network of over 50 authorized partners, and has already entered markets in Europe, Asia, South and North America, with resellers located among others in the U.S., Japan, Colombia, Nordic countries and Great Britain.
What makes the machine unique? It doesn’t just print things. It also mills, cuts and engraves the objects using wide variety of materials (e.g. plastic, glass, liquids and even wood). That is why they brand their product as a mini factory. The idea behind the printer was to make 3D printing easy and available to every user, even if they lack any skills in programming, electronics or mechanics, so that anyone can reap the benefits of rapid fabrication. That is, anyone with about PLN 16 000 (USD 4 600) to spare.
Printers designed for personal use can not only help small businesses or individual entrepreneurs build prototypes, and quickly verify their ideas, but there also is a possibility to print ordinary consumer goods. A household equipped with a 3D printer could simply print the things it needs instead of actually buying the products.
Is the revolution afoot?
If 3D printers supposedly allow for a 3D fabrication of everything we encounter in the world and everything we can conceive of, why don’t we all own one already?
The major obstacle is, for sure, the price. However groundbreaking additive manufacturing may seem, fabrication devices are still way too expensive for many and far too narrowly distributed. Are 3D printers ever going to be cheap enough to reach customer market? Perhaps. But by focusing so much on the price we tend to forget about other important aspects, some of which concern the core foundations of our very economy.
The thing is, apart from the printer you also need materials and projects. Materials aren’t that hard to come by after all. The projects are a totally different story. 3D printing software offers some basic projects and helps you create your own ones. But many people still don’t seem quite at ease with 3D modelling techniques.
3D scanners in turn enable you to make blueprints for already existing objects. But do you actually have the right to fabricate those objects or let alone sell them? The answer in most cases is: no.
To really be able to print just about anything you would need an access to digital projects of just about everything. That would be possible if there was some sort of digital repository modelled on information commons. Like Wikipedia for digital fabrication. But that would involve changing the schemes of licensing and relieving the intellectual property regime.
A proliferation of 3D printers could greatly empower customers. Imagine the world in which 3D printers are cheap and you can access digital projects at a zero cost. And what do you see? Freedom from scarcity? Yes, that is the promise of 3D printing. Being able to print everything you can possible think of would disrupt the entire economy.
There is also an environmental factor to consider. Before we start this massive fabrication we would need to come up with an idea what to do with piles of goods which have already been produced and are stored in warehouses all over the world. 3D printing could make production easier and faster but once it gets too easy and too fast that could quickly lead to us drowning in a sea of overproduction.
So what future will we 3D-print ourselves? Let’s hope it will be a sustainable one.
Written by Dare Magazine