3D printing is an overnight success that was 30 years in the making. Proponents of the technology are saying that the year 2014 will bring great advances in 3D printing, including the reduction in its price to the extent that it becomes more available to at-home hobbyists. Some of the advances may seem more fanciful or even frightening, such as 3D printed food and major body organs.
More likely, at least in the short run, will be its increasing use to print toys, dental implants and other medical devices, component parts for aerospace and the auto industry, and even costume jewelry. The consumer products aspects are where much of the 3D industry is focusing its attention and so is making preparations for the marketplace. Some printer manufacturers are reporting they already are selling to individuals for personal use.
The increasing availability and flexibility of 3D printing, however, has raised a number of questions about its use for pirating objects in much the same way that Napster pirated music and others have stolen copyrighted movies and books. The issue is the ability to create a software program that will tell a 3D printer how to make something, and that program code could then be transported via the Internet and printed anywhere. Those concerned about the possibilities for piracy are recommending the government step in to establish industry oversight and develop property and trademark regulations as powerful as the beefed-up copyright laws for music and movies. Otherwise, they say, consumers could make copies of exclusive designer products in the comfort of their homes.
3D printing began in earnest in the 1980s as a niche market that produced highly expensive machines that could reproduce prototype component parts for the automotive and aerospace industries. As the technology advanced and 3D reproductions became more reliable, they also were able to be produced out of more types of raw materials in particle or liquid form, including plastics, ceramics, and metals. The printers operate by taking a digital image, or the digital code for an object, and then lay down layer upon layer to reproduce the item from the ground up.
As the price of a 3D printer became less of an obstacle, more industries gradually began incorporating the technology into their production methods, including manufacturers of medical and dental tools and prosthetics. Proponents see the 3D printer taking much the same route that the personal computer traveled in the later part of the 20th century. First, personal computers were a novelty only to be enjoyed by the well-heeled or businesses. Then, as computer prices kept dropping and more software became available, it infiltrated all areas of life and became a necessity. Just ask the Postal Service and parcel delivery companies how the computer has affected them.
Avi Reichental, the CEO of 3D Systems, a 3D copier development, and production company, says his firm has been focused on making the technology more democratic by making it simpler and easier to use as well as less expensive. That, added to the vast computing power of the cloud, the advances in robotics, materials science, and mobile devices, and the future looks decidedly bright for the integration of 3D printing into the modern lifestyle.
Already online services are popping up that will print designs created by customers, often providing these customized items at a lower cost than possible using conventional methods. These operations are becoming so popular that many are claiming to have difficulty keeping up with demand.
Universities and private R&D organizations around the globe are working on ways of using 3D printers to recreate human organs and tissue. The brightest light so far has been in the area of replicating bone matter and prosthetic implants. The industry also is looking at using 3D printing technology to produce nutrition bars or other foods personalized for an individual's dietary needs.
Because of the 3D printer's potential for lowering production costs, particularly because of the ability to create objects with a minimal labor force, many proponents say the technology eventually will be able to help the industry compete in an era of declining numbers of low-wage workers. This theory, however, presupposes an extreme reduction or elimination of poverty as developing nations improve their economies and catch up with the developed states. At least equally likely, therefore, will be the reduction in low-skill production jobs as 3D printers take over.
Currently, 3D printing is seeing increasing growth in the area of medical devices, such as hearing aids, implants, and dental restoration devices, that are made specifically for the individual patient. The consumer side of the ledger, however, could dwarf anything 3D printers are being used for today, according to Mr. Reichental. That already is looking like it will open the door to illegal uses or criminal applications.
Groups are presently working on improving the design and construction of a 3D-printed gun, which, if completed as a reliable weapon, could easily pass through a metal detector and be taken into a school or onto a plane. This could expand into designs for other, more powerful weapons where the code could be easily passed around on the Internet and downloaded and printed anywhere, making it difficult if not impossible to track and trace.
Then there is the issue of the theft of a design or idea. Authors and composers can testify to the challenges that personal computing brought to the copyrighted world. Protecting trademarks and industrial secrets will require new and expanded government oversight to prevent counterfeiting that can be done with the push of a button. The government also will have to step in to protect consumers from harmful copies or, as in the development of human tissue and foods, require inspections and the adherence to rigid safety standards.
As 3D printing moves from limited use in creating prototypes to the production plant floor and the home office, opportunities will grow exponentially for it to be used to make life better and cheaper and to provide more options for the individual. At the same time, 3D printing also will provide a gateway for criminal activity and more options for ways to do harm. Reining in one while freeing the other will be the next great challenge posed by this technology.