Can 3D printing make it into the mainstream?

[Credit: MakerBot Industries]

3D printing could be at the start of something huge. 3D-printing technology has only been available to consumers for a few years, but it’s already led to some interesting creations and made the manufacturing process easier in terms of sourcing parts and reducing costs. However, a few key limitations and legal controversies surrounding 3D printing could restrain innovation.

Not sure how important 3D printing is, or if it even has a future? Let’s take a look.

3D printing: A quick overview

The concept behind 3D printing isn’t all that different from your typical inkjet printer. Instead of printing onto paper using ink, a 3D printer moves back and forth, printing layers in order to build up an object. It also uses a variety of different materials—more on that shortly.

Contrary to popular belief, 3D printing isn’t all that new: It’s actually been around in some form since the 1980s. These industrial-grade 3D printers were big custom-made machines used primarily for prototyping and research. The hobbyist-level 3D printer you’re probably more familiar with first came to be in 2003, but initial models would set you back upwards of $25,000.

Fast-forward to the present day, and 3D printers are becoming more common in a variety of different fields. They’ve proven to be a valuable tool for researchers, hardware engineers, and even artists. Thanks to hardware advances and falling prices, 3D printing is as accessible as it’s ever been, and it’s only going to become more consumer-friendly in the future.

Putting 3D printing to work

There are a number of things you could do with your own 3D printer, and there are many great projects already about making use of the technology.

3D printing could even be used to replace various body parts. Earlier this year, doctors and engineers worked on a project involving a 3D printer, which would replace a patient’s infected lower jaw with a new artificial one. The patient recovered from the operation within a few days.

Meanwhile, researchers in Germany are making steady progress developing 3D-printed, bio-compatible artificial blood vessels. While the research team stressed that 3D printers are not quite precise enough to cover all the steps necessary to create the vessels yet, it’s an emerging area of research worth watching.

3D-printed chocolate? Delicious. [Credit: Choc Edge]

And 3D printing could one day end up in the kitchen: A University of Exeter lecturer modified a 3D printer to print chocolate. His invention, the Choc Creator, is now on sale for businesses looking to let customers design their own sweet treats for loved ones—or individuals who really love chocolate.

These are large-scale, well-funded projects that you’re not likely to do in your own home. However, there are plenty of fun and practical uses for a 3D printer, too. For example, you could use a 3D printer to replace broken or missing parts of a model you’re working on. Or even cooler, you could create your own model from scratch and get the printer to run off the parts.

There’s plenty of room to get even more imaginative. By connecting it to an iPad and taking a photo, you could have your face printed onto a vase, all done with a 3D printer. Want to make electric guitars more practical without compromising sound? Then you can print a more- streamlined version of the instrument. You can also create your own unique fashion accessories with the help of 3D printing.

Many commercially available printers presently use ABS plastic, a resistant form of the material that’s flexible enough to mold and easily recycled. ABS plastic is often used to make common household items, including children’s toys, piping, shower doors, and furniture.

While ABS is a great material to use for your 3D endeavors, it can be limiting: Many commercial printers won’t let you change to another material or even use more than one color. If you create something too delicate, ABS can also become quite brittle over time, particularly if stored in the wrong conditions.

Fortunately, things are starting to improve. Some newer, more-advanced 3D printers can use multiple materials and print in different colors, meaning there are fewer limitations on your project.

Stuck in a niche?

It’s easy to see why 3D printers are often considered a niche product. After all, they’re still fairly expensive, and most consumer-level 3D printers are made with hobbyists in mind. But they may be considered mainstream devices before long.

Peter Weijmarshausen is the CEO of Shapeways, a company that lets customers submit 3D designs online. Once Shapeways receives an order, the company custom-prints the object and sends it to the designer. Speaking at Mashable Connect, Weijmarshausen told the audience that in addition to one-off projects or niche markets, 3D printing could be used for the mass production of everything from cars to coffee cups, and it could let customers have more control over what is being produced.

Right now, 3D printers could be seen as quite a niche product. But that may be changing.

Prices are coming down, too. These days, you can get a basic 3D printer for less than $500, while more-advanced models range up to around $1,500. This isn’t unreasonable, especially given where 3D printer prices were five years ago. Contributions from the open-source community are also growing, such as the RepRap project. RepRap is an attempt to create self-replicating printers for the benefit of others.

The RepRap. [Credit: RepRap on Kickstarter]

It’s all very well having a 3D printer, but you need the right software on your computer to help it understand what to print and how to do it in three dimensions. While there is plenty of software out there for designing 3D-printable objects, it still takes a keen eye and professional 3D tools to create an ideal product.

Nick Grace, a manager with RapidFormRCA (a digital manufacturing and prototyping centre at the London Royal College of art) pointed out to Computerworld’s Robert Mitchell that this sort of software does require training to reach the standard needed to make good, sturdy objects. Many individuals may not have the time or interest to find the training needed to use such a device.

Intellectual property issues?

Unfortunately, printing off copies of objects, even if it’s just to innocently replace a personal item, does raise intellectual property issues—both in terms of patent law and copyright.

For instance, say you’re building with Lego, but you need a few more pieces to complete your project. A plastic Lego brick is pretty easy for a 3D printer to recreate, but should you print the block, or buy it from the company?

The problem here is that 3D printing is still regarded as a new technology, so the issue of intellectual property and what’s legal is yet to be fully clarified. Still, it would probably be advisable not to reproduce someone else’s idea in its entirety.

According to Wired, the problem mainly arises when you combine a 3D object scanner with a 3D printer. The scanner—which can be in the form of a hacked Kinect—is capable of copying not just the shape, but also the more-intricate details of an object.

This goes beyond the more-innocent reproduction of patented or copyrighted products. Opportunistic criminals could use a 3D printer to create ATM card skimmers, master keys, weapons, or other nefarious items.

The question is, how is 3D printing going to threaten intellectual property any more than hardware before it? Having access to any other cutting or milling machines would still lead to the same copyright issues as 3D print might cause. As Michael Weinberg, a staff attorney for Public Knowledge, points out, just because a technology is new, doesn’t mean the illegalities are.

“Computers empowered people to create and share a huge number of things, and that ability was disruptive… The work [Public Knowledge is] doing now is to make sure that if someone walks into their Senator’s office with a 3D printer and says ‘this pirate box is ruining my business and needs to be shut down,’ the Senator will already be familiar with 3D printing and understand the positive benefits of the technology.”

What’s more, people tend to associate digital technology and distribution with copyright issues. This stems from how easy it was to distribute copyrighted items online, such as music and films.

Weinberg adds: “Some [objects] are protected by patent (and fewer by trademark), but a huge number of physical objects simply are not protected by any sort of Intellectual Property [laws]. That means that making a copy is not violating anyone’s rights. This has been true for hundreds of years… but it can take a bit of time to come to terms with it.”

A tricky one to overcome, right?

One to watch

Of course, for 3D printing to make its way into the mainstream, a few things need to be addressed. Prices are likely to continue to fall, and the printers themselves will likely continue to become more compact, functional, and streamlined. Easier-to-use design tools will also make the technology more accessible. The improved ease-of-use is already starting with the Cube printer, a device touted as so simple that even children can print something using its basic interface.

Of course, 3D printing will only work on a foundation of trust. Much like the digital-music industry, possible misuse of 3D-printing technology could potentially stifle its growth. Regardless of legal issues, as long as people are looking to innovate, 3D printing’s possibilities will be fascinating to follow in the (near!) future.

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