Instant manufacturing, despite a plethora of exciting applications, is also creating some bizarre results.
Almost as hot a topic as the iPhone, 3D printing is taking off everywhere. It offers rapid prototyping, low-cost tooling for molding, a way to make small production runs, and, at the expensive end of the scale, a means to do some esoteric manufacturing.
These are all valuable ideas, and they can change an industry. Just ask the jewelry trade. Making mounts and designs became a different game with 3D techniques, and it's possible to create otherwise impossible designs.
Medicine is also hitting home runs with the approach. Artificial organs are being printed already, using living cells as the ink. This is just within four years of looking at approaches. Just imagine what the future holds.
However, the technology is being applied in some surprising ways as well. A few of them lean to the dark side.
Britain is excited about the technology. The government just announced six million parts have been printed, and it is putting $20 million into advancing the technology, especially in medicine. The Science Museum in the UK has launched an exhibit of some of the best of those parts ( pictures here) and you can see the power of the approach.
Access to 3D printers is going to get much easier. Libraries are starting to install them, primarily in colleges for the use of engineering students and artists and this will become quite common as printers get cheaper. This opens up both creativity and the opportunity for abuse.
Totally unexpectedly, we are seeing an interest on the High Street in Britain. The supermarket chain ASDA is installing printer and scanners in stores. I suppose this will be the new photo booth, but it shows the interest in the technology. Selfridges is going to do the same, anticipating demand for the holiday buying season. It'll be very interesting to see what gets printed but the firm seems convinced that “selfies” will get a new twist.
However, one of the 3D creations being shown in the 3D exhibit mentioned above above is a gun. Designs like this have been fired, creating a huge concern about the directions that 3D printing could take us. This is a plastic gun, made by anyone with access to the plans published on the Internet. Terrorists apart, this may generate a ton of Darwin awards, since printed plastics vary immensely in strength, and aren't very robust. In other words, these guns may burst easily. Printing one for other than decoration is dicey. The same is true for printed hand-grenades.
Still, to date, there don't appear to be any dire consequences of the printing. What we are seeing are some zany ideas and some interesting uses.
I went to the dentist for a checkup recently, and was staggered to find a small 3D printer chirping away building a temporary denture for a patient. It has reached the point where it's economic to take digital images of the mouth and convert them to plastic on the spot. It's much faster, and cuts out the middle man.
A group of dentists is making a custom printed toothbrush. Looking like a set of dentures, it will clean your teeth in seconds, or so the makers claim. To me, it looks like a set of hairy teeth. But what do I know?
On a slightly larger scale, some Navy folks are talking about building ships using printers. That's likely a year or two out, but Ford is borrowing the technology for car manufacturing (one assumes some small parts).
There's even a printed full size room, with a huge number of elements. I suppose it's more fun than going to Ikea, but it's probably not as cheap. NASA has helped create a 3D-printed pizza — you can sense the astronauts' priorities!
Clearly, we are going to have fun with 3D printing, and old boundaries on imagination are being shattered. For me, that's a lot more interesting than the case color of the latest smartphone! (Hmm, what color do I want to print today's case?)