Is 3D Printing the New Industrial Revolution?

It is common these days to hear about a company or person moving from print publications to the web. Sure the web is the future, has a smaller barrier to entry, and can ultimately reach a larger audience, so everyone interested in growth should be going there. What if you were already on the web though, had a significant presence, fantastic readership, a stellar reputation, and consistent income? Who would be crazy enough to move away from that, especially to go back to boring old printing.

Recently Zdnet ran an article discussing a move like this, from web publication back into printing. You may be able to tell when I’m going with this. It wasn’t just the boring old printing industry that snagged a top web editor, it was the flashy new technology of 3D printing. Chris Anderson, formerly the Editor-In-Chief of Wired magazine, left his post and published a book called “Makers:The New Industrial Revolution”. Overall “Makers” is meant to mean more than just 3D printers but certainly they play a huge part. Especially since Mr. Anderson has been quoted hypothesizing that 3D printers will be “bigger than the Web” (this may just be a sound bite to help sell books). Looking at the current state of the technology helps to assess whether or not it can truly be the next revolution.

3D  Printed Christmas Tree via Creative Tools user on Flickr
3D Printed Christmas Tree via Flickr User "Creative Tools"
During a book signing Mr. Anderson met with the Zdnet writer, Tom Foremski, who noted that additive manufacturing and 3D printing are a long way from being an industrial revolution. One of the main reasons he states is the limitation on materials

If 3D printers could handle melted cheese, sugar, or chocolate, I could see a future for them in the home. But I wouldn't leave my day job.

It’s a good point that for 3D printers to become commonplace they will have to span the wide variety of materials used in everyday goods, but all of those mentioned are already available. Time has run articles showing some delicious printing of chocolate.

There is a video of chocolate printing, which shows how the tech can be used for anything that melts.





What about delicious melty cheese, why stop there? One industrious fellow has managed to get a whole freaking burrito out of a 3D printer (thought that is a bit of a stretch in terminology).

There are other assumptions made in the article that smack technological advancement in the face.
A home 3D printer that can create a product with multiple materials, such as ceramics and metals, hasn't been invented and won't be for many years.

Digging into this becomes a matter of semantics. First off, printers for both ceramics and metals exist. Now shapeways is not a “home” printer in the strictest sense of the word but it does nicely combine desktop computing, home 3D modeling, and a quick turn web based customer experience that rivals the home. The 12-16 business days (the turnaround time for shapeways) is barely an improvement over traditional machining but my point here is that these technologies DO exist.  The statement that it will be “many years” before they make it to the home is something that should be backed up by at least a review of current technology.

I am not arguing that tomorrow everyone will go out and buy a 3D printer. My opinion is that a technological infrastructure will start cropping up before it becomes something household. Think along the lines of Kinko’s stores or, to use the ever popular corollary of desktop printing, the racks and racks of printer cartridges carried by office supply stores. Even this is development is starting, MakerBot, a leader in personal fabrication machines, just opened their first store. And Mcor technologies has already developed a printer that works by using standard reams of paper. Once there is an easy to manage consumable and a reasonably priced machine (really not far off considering some things like the 3DS Cube) or a retail presence for additive fabrication it then only a matter of who wants to adopt the technology. .

Both Mr. Foremski, of ZdNet, and Mr. Anderson, formerly of Wired, have great points on the current technology but I must say that my personal feeling are much closer to Mr. Anderson. A true “industrial revolution” will be something that can not be foreseen by all but the most creative and futuristic thinkers, who likely are to be laughed off as crazy until the day that their ideas prove true. Could it be in 3 years that my oven can access all of the ingredients in my pantry or fridge to 3D print a lasagna, or maybe I’ll be in the mood for baked Ziti. Maybe when I lose the remote I’ll be able to duck into the home office and “find” it magically in the output of a printer. Certainly  It surely will be interesting to see where the new revolution takes us.

Check out more articles about 3D printing.

4 comments:

  1. I am agreement with your points. More materials are available for 3D printing every day. The arguments by the naysayers are similar to those for other advancements in the past. I'd be willing to bet similar comments were made about 2d printers back in the day.

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  2. While I am a big fan of 3D printing and additive manufacturing - making food seems like an application that trivializes what the future looks like in order to get some traction with the broader public. If a revolution is coming it isn't going to be in the kitchen. It will be in the factories, which may stop looking like factories but they won't look like kitchens. If you want to stir peoples imaginations take a look at what they are making in metal additive manufacturing. That is what will change the world.

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  3. Bill, great point and I totally agree. The chocolate printer is meant to illustrate that there are wide variety of materials soon to be available, though admittedly pointing to printed chemical structures, tool steel, or electronics may be more impactful.

    As for the production floor I think it will change both the way people build production businesses

    Effect of 3D Printing on Manufacturers

    and even the location of factories
    3D Printing Changes the Location of Factories

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  4. I don't think food trivializes it. There's nothing trivial about one of our basic animal needs to survive on a daily basis. It is a logical gateway, and one that is well covered in SciFi, like Star Trek:TNG. I don't know if 3D printing will eventually lead to the development of transports (mostly indirectly, as I wouldn't want myself to be reprinted and hope the "me" transfers over to the new print), but the inspiration is there.

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