From vehicles to printable flesh, there are good uses of 3D printing
Both the hyping up and the fear of 3D printing are species of technological determinism – of a world view in which it is technology that independently creates society, rather than the other way round. Variously, commentators have thought that robots, IT, biotechnology and now digital fabrication are the ultimate "drivers" of the future. All have been mistaken.
This article cannot go into today’s debate about whether innovation is speeding up or slowing down. However, in their rather fatalistic conceptions, both "optimists" and "pessimists" in that debate miss the point that innovation’s pace depends on society’s confidence, priorities and wherewithal.
One of the major points in Big Potatoes: The London Manifesto for Innovation is that the innovatory first and second industrial revolutions (roughly 1733-1800 and 1880-1918) coincided with "new hopes in the possibility and necessity of progress". The West sorely lacks these hopes today – and that fact can only impair the prospects for really taking advantage of 3D printing, just as much as it will slow moves toward driverless cars, fusion power and the human exploration of Mars.
That’s a pity, because 3D printing and the technologies near it have a great deal to recommend them. In Manitoba, Canada, a tiny hybrid electric three-wheeler vehicle has had its whole body made by a 3D printer – even if the process took all of three months. At Heriot-Watt University, Scotland, scientists hope to use stem cells as the material with which to make tissues and organs through 3D printing.
In the US and South Africa, the designers of Robohand, an artificial hand, have published the software to have it made by MakerBot 3D printers. The designers have already successfully given Liam, a five-year old boy without a hand, a finalised working version of the prosthetic hand – one that should be easy to scale up and reprint for Liam as he grows up.
These achievements of 3D printing are not in question. But the application of 3D printing will not be helped by its aficionados getting evangelical about it.
From Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) through to a succession of later labour and farmers’ movements, anti-monopoly republicanism, cooperative individualism and various forms of "producer ideology" were often salient in American thought and deed. As the US labour historian Eric Foner also points out in his book Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men: "Throughout the 19th century, the 'small producer ideology', resting on such tenets as equal citizenship, pride in craft, and the benefits of economic autonomy, underpinned a widespread hostility to wage labor, as well as to “non-producers” who prospered from the labor of others. The ideology of free labor would emerge, in part, from this vision of America as a producer’s republic.’
Over the nineteenth century, many movements in the US expressed their own kind of fondness for local, often engineering-based solutions separate from the city, the state and big capital. It is true that the term "republicanism" is too elastic to have much value as a factor in American history. However from Ben Franklin onward, America, a country largely created anew, has always treated technology and engineering with more than a little misty-eyed affection.
In one sense this affection, and its display around 3D printers, is a good thing, given all the hostility that accompanies mankind’s technical achievements nowadays. Nevertheless, it’s entirely wrong to try to represent 3D printing as any kind of Brave New World. The emancipation of mankind rests not just upon machines, but also, and more, upon what mankind chooses to do with them. ®
James Woudhuysen is professor of forecasting and innovation at De Montfort University, Leicester, and co-author of Energise: a future for energy innovation. Paul Reeves and Martin Stevens contributed research to this article. This essay was first published in the February edition of Spiked Plus.
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).