How 3D Printing Has Changed Society Forever
How are we as a civiliation to understand the impact of this new technology on our future development.
FABRICATED: The New World of 3D Printing is a text that works to illuminate 3D printing’s role in undermining the rigidity of manufacturing. This is accomplished by providing an on-demand production tool that product designers, students, doctors, and others can benefit from. Authors Hod Lipson and Melba Kurman convey a level-headedness and cautious enthusiasm that is refreshing. Instead of pushing the idea that every home will have a 3D printer in the future, they spend considerable time envisioning alternative scenarios by analyzing different types of enthusiast communities, how and why they’re gaining market traction. In their book you will find coverage of various science experiments, educational initiatives, the creative thinking of large companies like 3D Systems, and more consumer-facing platforms like Makerbot and Shapeways.
The secret to 3D printing could be summed up as follows: 3D printers are more accurate and versatile than any other mode of production — be it a human or machine — at fabricating complex design into a physical object, combining raw materials in ways that were once impossible.
The book explains the world of 3D printing in all its technologies, design tools, and downstream implications, covering corporate R&D labs to the DIY initiatives we see in the DIY and Maker communities. FABRICATED does a great job in explaining how the technology has gained traction in industries including electronics, automotive, aerospace and the medical community. It also dedicates a good portion of the book to explaining more conceptual areas such as 3D printed food. Below is a summary of the key takeaways from the book.
A Historical Overview of 3D Printing
As new as it seems, 3D printing has been around since the late 80’s. For decades, a niche community of enthusiasts have been exploring the possibilities of this technology. Initially, it was referred to as ‘additive manufacturing’ and the text develops the idea that the word “print” is ultimately more approachable than ‘manufacture’ or ‘fabricate’.
The authors see 3D printing as a way of gaining control over composition. This means the birth of “programmable matter” or “intelligent materials”. They see an eventual convergence of virtual and physical worlds, “first we will gain control over the shape of physical things. Then we will gain new levels of control over the composition, the materials they’re made of. Finally, we will gain control over the behavior of physical things.” The biggest future-forward implication of this is doctors gaining the ability to ‘print’ organic material like body parts and food. The book dedicates the entirety of its seventh chapter to discussing bioprinting, which may include the development of artificial limbs to the engineering of tissue, stem cells using bio-ink and bio-paper. And this is followed by a chapter on the realities of printing food.
The book actually leaps into these future implications early on in chapter 1, which presents is an imaginative take on how life may be in a future where everything from functional food to a toothbrush can be printed. This is quickly followed by a more historicized understanding that articulates the 10 Principles of 3D Printing (e.g. makers don’t need to pay extra for complex designs, 3D printed objects don’t require assembly, that digital precision will enable to replicate physical objects).
The Question of Scale and Impact on Businesses
As mentioned, the authors believe that 3D printing is slated to merge digital and physical creativity. Based on this, it will also bring together the benefits of craftsmanship and mass production together by enabling smaller players to compete more directly with larger players. In their third chapter, they dedicate time to looking at how 3D printing is “somewhere between mass production and the local farmer’s market.” They elaborate to say that while 3D printing as a process is not very scaleable for a company selling large volumes of a product with thin margins, “small companies have access to powerful tools that were once available only to global corporations. Resourceful businesses, armed with a 3D printer and design software, can provide skilled services of a caliber that were once the exclusive domain of corporate in-house design and engineering departments.” This is, in a nutshell, how it will impact the design business environment.
The Question of Adoption in Consumer Culture
While some like Makerbot and 3D Systems are working to move 3D printers into people’s homes making them ‘ants with factories,’ the book provides a counter point by citing industry analyst Terry Wohlers in saying that while consumers are comfortable purchasing 3D printed customized goods, “most consumers will never own or operate a machine to produce these products. Instead, they will go to Shapeways, Amazon, or to another service or storefront to purchase these products.” While this may be true, other trends such as the rise of ethical consumerism or sustainable product design may lead to an unlikely uptake. The authors wrap this point up nicely in asserting that “the key is to make 3D printing technologies more fun, more social, and of course easier to use.” Thus the fate of in-home 3D printing lays in the hands of a few players including O’Reilly’s the Maker community and Makerbot’s playful culture.
Given the importance of these enthusiastic communities, Chapter 12 spends delves into the complications of ownership and new legal frontiers. This includes not only the rights to product designs, but also the potential for the development of a black market where 3D printed weapons, body parts, and drugs are sold, posing a threat to consumer safety. This chapter reflects on the role of consumer responsibility and the need to quickly develop a legal framework to prevent counterfeit machines or the proliferation of unregulated printed objects.
All in all, FABRICATED is a timely book that brings much clarity to the field of 3D printing and its connection to the broader field of digital fabrication. 3D printing is one of those buzz terms that is poorly understood; the average person exposed to this technology will typically come to know it in a fragmented way that lacks nuance and a holistic understanding. The sculpting of a dynamic understanding will be crucial to understanding this new technology’s impact on our society as it stands now, and how it will develop.