Drilling into 3D printing: Gimmick, revolution or spooks' nightmare?
Top prof sorts the hype from the science for El Reg
Special report 3D printing, otherwise known as additive manufacturing, is a subject that pumps out enthusiasts faster than any real-life 3D printer can churn out products.
In conventional machining, computer-aided design and computer-aided manufacturing (CADCAM) combine to make products or parts of products by cutting away at, drilling and otherwise manhandling materials. With 3D printing, CADCAM works with product scanners, other bits of IT and special plastics and metals to build products up, whether through the squirts of an inkjet-like device or the sintering of metal powder by lasers or electron beams.
Rather in the same way, America’s somewhat self-conscious Maker Movement – several thousand DIY fans out to revive manufacturing through the web and from the privacy of their own garages – promotes 3D printing with layer upon layer of hype.
It’s true that 3D printing has its good points. Without having to engage in expensive retooling, a 3D printer can easily be reprogrammed to make variations on a basic product - good for dental crowns, for example. 3D printing can also make intricate products with designs that cannot be emulated by conventional, "subtractive" techniques.
In principle, though not always in practice, 3D wastes less material than conventional techniques. And while jewellery, toys, footwear, the cases for mobile phones and other smallish items lend themselves to 3D, researchers at the European aerospace and defence giant EADS have for two years hoped that they will one day be able to print titanium components directly on to the structure of an entire wing of an Airbus.
The touchscreen-driven 3D Touch 3D printer: Cheerful, user friendly and only, er, $3,000 (£1,999)
Despite all this, those who blithely proclaim that 3D printing brings a revolution to manufacturing make a mistake. 3D printing does not represent a pervasive, durable and penetrating transformation of the dynamics and status of manufacturing. Nor, as The Economist newspaper has proposed, is its emergence akin to the birth of the printing press (1450), the steam engine (1750) or the transistor (1950). There is much to celebrate about 3D printing, and even its too-fervent advocates at least represent a reasonable desire to produce new kinds of things in new kinds of ways. Yet what characterises 3D printing is how, as with other powerful technologies today, it need only barely arrive on the world economic stage for zealots to overrate it, and for others to turn it into an object of fear.
Web democracy is old hat - it's all about 'democratising innovation in atoms’
From customised surgical implants to complex, lightweight components in the car industry, 3D seems to conquer everything before it. Indeed, not too long after the hipsters at Wired began to promote 3D, two editors from that stable quit to join Makezine.com. In another telling move, Chris Anderson, for years editor-in-chief of Wired, left last year to become CEO of 3D Robotics, a company that uses 3D printing and robots to build civilian unmanned aerial vehicles – aeroplane drones and helicopter drones, ready to fly at $765.
Anderson’s book, Makers: The New Industrial Revolution (2012), is a big plea for 3D printing, and, though boosterish, is nevertheless instructive. Citing the famous and somewhat singular instance of Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook, Anderson starts from the dubious premise that the web has democratised innovation by closing the gap between invention and entrepreneurship. "Anyone with an idea for a service," he intones, can "turn it into a product with some software code… [and go on to] 'ship it' to a global market of billions of people". Then, in the breezy style affected by Wired, the author goes on to instruct: "Just imagine what a similar model could do in the larger economy of Real Stuff."
So the web, we are told, democratised innovation in bits; and now a new class of rapid-prototyping technologies – machines that allow rough but functional designs to be turned out in a few hours or days – is, Anderson insists, "democratising innovation in atoms". As a result, "anyone" with an invention or good design can "upload files to a service to have that product made, in small batches or large, or make it themselves with increasingly powerful desktop fabrication tools such as 3D printers. Would-be entrepreneurs and inventors are no longer at the mercy of large companies to manufacture their ideas."
In fact, seeing IT in general and the web in particular as forces on the side of democracy is an idea with a long and ill-distinguished past. For instance, in his seminal 1993 book, The Virtual Community, the prolific American author Howard Rheingold already put forward computer-mediated communications as a "democratising" technology and as "a means of enhancing democracy". He forgot that democracy is a political matter, not a technical one that can be reduced to the movement of electrons.
What, then, is new about 3D printing? Do its high priests merely mark yet another American fad for attributing new kinds of liberating political powers to new technologies? After all, once the US and British media gave rave reviews to US pollster Nate Silver for correctly computing the outcome of the 2012 US presidential elections in all 50 states, it ought to have been clear how easily fondness for data-crunching technologies substitutes for political ideals nowadays.
Certainly the old idea of IT allowing someone like Michael Dell to build a corporate giant from his college dormitory room dies hard in the US. And those who exaggerate the power of 3D printing to turn everyone into a budding inventor /entrepreneur/manufacturer follow very much in this utopian tradition. But there is more to boosters of 3D than mere geekery or quackery.
The future of 3D printing is already written. Just look at 2D printing and replicate.
So at the moment most people will look at the prices and go "No chance". Few people are prepared to spend £2000 on a decent one, the budget ones look too fiddly for the masses.
So the price will fall to £200 and you'll spend a small fortune on supplies instead. So you'll get a small spool of plastic cord, but replacing it will cost you £300.
Re: Ignoring the speed...
Possibly, in the same sense that the Wright brothers were heading towards the concept of warp drive.
> My Whirlpool tumble-dryer had a small plastic door latch that melted, and their website very efficiently charged me £18 for a replacement.
But surely the fittings on that small plastic door latch are proprietary IPR owned and licensed by Whirlpool so the creation of blueprints to replicate these will be an offence punishable by fines of ~$20K+ per infringement. You could redesign the shape of the handle, naturally, but being able to fit it to the door will require licensing of the right IPR.
Extremely Loud BAH!
Yeah, this is the way to report on a technology still in its infancy.
Use comments from academics and fellow journalists (who like to coin three-dollar words to make ordinary concepts sound more clixby) and politicians (and their catspaws, government agencies) who don't know the difference between star trek and real life.
This is my view. Imagine a time when this technology has moved out of the garage and into the home. Can we find an analogy...sorry I can't. Imagine you drive a classic car, say a Thunderbird or a TR3, and you break a tail light filter. Imagine being able to order the pattern off the web and buy a kit of the raw materials which your handy-dandy universal fabricator (rather optimistically named by some large corporation) will, before your very eyes, work up a replacement for you.
Not as exciting or controversial as "me build gun in garage!" but that is where the future will bring us, in good time.
All the rubbishing of hyperbole cooked up by fellow journalists is, to be honest, a bit masturbatory. Of course the hobbyists are keen. Did you ever try talking to someone who makes and flies model aircraft? That doesn't mean the technology won't live up to the hype given enough time.
I'll finish up by saying that I started my working life in a machine tool manufacturing plant in the UK where we made hydraulic, multi-spindle machines of great quality. What management refused to believe was that the new Japanese machines would steal our market from under our noses. After all, theirs were single spindle, made of plastic rather than iron and steel and were controlled by these new-fangled "microprocessors", which were not durable in those days. Do I have to spell out how that ended? The road where the factory used to stand is still named for the company. I doubt anyone who lives nearby knows that, though. The factory was history before most of them started school.
"But surely the fittings on that small plastic door latch are proprietary IPR owned and licensed by Whirlpool "
Well, if I might (uncharacteristically) offer a glass half full thought for you both:
The chances of a home 3D printer being able to turn out a component of the accuracy and strength to replace the carefully designed and made door catch on a machine is in my view slim, and will remain so, because you won't be inclined to maintain separate supplies of powdered metal, polystyrene, polycarbonate, ABS etc etc. That means we won't see the emergence of options like buying the digital pattern to print at home. But where 3D printing might help is that if the makers can print parts using a proper professional tool that uses the original design and the right type of plastic (or whatever) then this might revolutionise the world of spare parts, since other than for high volume parts you'd not make and warehouse components, significantly reducing your overall spares cost base (much of which is inventory management, warehousing, and working capital).
Of course, lower production costs won't necessarily stop the makers pricing the parts at extortionate costs, as anybody who buys spares for Panasonic breadmakers will know, but there's some companies who are very good for spares (Bosch, Makita, come to mind in my experience).