Column by Jonathan Rudnick
As technological capabilities expand, one of the most exciting new developments is that of 3D printing, the process of taking a digital model and producing a three-dimensional, solid object out of it.
Although industry and high-end models can print in bronze, steel and even organic material, consumer models generally print in plastic.
The first 3D printer was created in 1984, but printers have risen to prominence in the last few years due to their increasing availability and affordability, as well as the expiration of a few key patents.
“As soon as the patents expired, everything exploded and went open-source,” said 3D printing company Shapeways designer Duann Scott.
“An FDM machine was $14,000 five years ago, and now it’s $300.”
Further patents are set to expire at the end of this year, increasing the availability of further and cheaper methods of printing.
“This is what happened with FDM,” Scott said.
As a new market, 3D printers hold enormous potential, which with their increasing capabilities will only grow.
Numerous businesses as well as a number of universities have begun obtaining 3D printers, including two here at Drake.
However, government regulation is quickly rising to meet this new market, threatening to clip the industry’s wings before it has even left the gates.
Over a year ago, The Economist warned that 3D printers were doomed to be labeled “piracy machines” by the government, stifled by traditional manufacturers who see it as a threat to their business.
Manufacturers already contend with product knock-offs, a problem which is sure to worsen as printers become more prevalent.
But manufacturers need to meet these opportunities, not dread them. In the same way that media piracy has forced digital distributors to change their systems to follow delivery models like Hulu and Netflix, companies will need to accept this new medium and work with it, rather than against it.
“We don’t want to see what happened in music and film play out in the area of shapes,” says Carnegie Mellon Engineering Professor Golan Levin.
Earlier this year, a group called Defense Distributed created and successfully tested a firearm made almost entirely on a 3D printer.
The State department ordered the group to remove the blueprints for the weapon days after they were posted online for free.
Within a day of the takedown notice, the design had been downloaded over 100,000 times.
A day later, file sharing site The Pirate Bay announced it would host the blueprints on its servers.
These printers not only have significant applications for consumers, but also to society.
Recently, a California-based company announced that it had taken liver cells and printed them into the same cell architecture found in the human body.
Developments like this will allow researchers to test drugs and investigate diseases without risking any harm to participants.
NASA said it has cut down costs and production times by moving the manufacturing of its rocket parts from contractors to printers.
It won’t be long before companies begin offering their products in digital format, allowing consumers to buy and download designs for their own homes.
In the same way that media companies like Blockbuster which could not adapt to the advent of digital distribution doomed themselves to fail, so too will manufacturers who do not adapt to the rise of 3D printing.
Rudnick is a first-year computer science and politics double major and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org