“Wow, you’ve got a 3D printer? What do you use it for?” – a question I’ve been asked many times. My response – printing parts for my RC models, game components, and various widgets and gizmos – is usually met with eyes glazing over and a look of disappointment. “Oh, so nothing useful then? There’s no point me getting one?”, and to this I always reply “Maybe not yet – but in the future, they’ll be a lot more useful”.
For all the hype that surrounds 3D printing, the current reality is a little more mundane. It’s not user-friendly nor accessible; sure, companies like 3DSystems, Flashforge and XYZ try to make printers as easy to use as possible, but that’s like saying Boeing have made the 787 as easy to fly as possible. And it’s not just the hardware that can trip you up – you need the right files to send to the printer in the first place. Again, Simplify3D helps a lot, but we’re back in Boeing territory.
Still, the same can be said of anything technology-related. Remember when setting the video recorder to record Neighbours every day was a complicated affair? Now it’s as simple as clicking one button that says “Neighbours series link”. Loading a game onto your Commodore 64 involved finding a shop that sold the games, then typing commands and faffing about with cassettes; now we click a button on our TV and our game downloads and is ready to play whenever we want. GPS? So easy it’s on every smartphone and nearly every new car. Building a website? Squarespace make it simple. And the same thing will happen with 3D printing.
Eventually, and I’m guessing around 2035 or so, we should be in a position where we’ll be able to order stuff online and have it print out at home. For example, if you want the hot new Lego set, you’ll buy the pattern, and it’ll be delivered to your printer and ready for you to play with in minutes. Erm, I mean, ready for your kids to play with… Sure, there are some challenges – piracy will obviously be a concern, but a similar approach to today’s digital media would probably work. There’s also a shift in costs – the consumer will be paying both for the pattern and also for the material needed to print the items; but again, this is similar to where we are today with home photo printing. As such, I see this as an additional stream for manufacturers; there’ll still be physical product in shops, but if someone wants to print at home, they can. It’s also a perfect way to get spare parts, and smaller items which may not merit being stocked by the manufacturer. Need a part from a set which was published ten years ago? Print one off. Need a new gasket when the washing machine floods the kitchen during the night? Print one off.
Another challenge (which is already being tackled successfully) is the quality of prints, and also the range of materials that can be printed. There are a wide range of printers available today that can print at 0.1mm precision. That sounds good, but it needs to be down to at least 0.01 in all axis, really. However we can already print in different types of plastic, plus a wood-like substance (wood mixed with plastic), metal and conductive substances, and even a glass-like material. Most printers can only print with one material at a time, but there are a growing number of printers that can handle two different materials by having two print heads. Eventually we’ll see printers that can load and unload material automatically, so you’ll be able to print with one head that can pull whatever material it needs when it needs it.
This is all assuming we continue down the current route of simply melting plastic and fusing layers of the stuff together; there are other ways of printing, and any of them may take over. In particular the machines that print using powders are looking very interesting.
I have no doubt that in, ooh, a hundred years or so, there will probably be machines that are as useful as Star Trek’s “replicators”. I doubt stuff will materialise out of thin air, but I can imagine a machine, much like the ovens of today, which will produce things – even food – on demand. Perhaps not instantly, but certainly within minutes. Will I be alive to see it? Probably not, but my great grandkids may well be getting their dentures from just such a machine…