“3-D” Printing: The Democratization of Manufacturing

Will “3-D printing” technology come to the aid of the West and destroy plutocratic capitalism’s plans to deindustrialize western nations?
Some experts have predicted that within a decade the technology of additive manufacturing (commonly known as 3D-printing) will become as widely available as PC printers and that many homes will have their own “mini-factories” with which they will be able to “print” almost anything they want—from food to household goods.

The technological revolution will, the experts claim, be the greatest change in industrialization since the Industrial Revolution.

The technology—only called “printing” because its physical motions most resemble those of current LaserJet printers with which many people are familiar—is based on a process whereby an object is created by laying down successive layers of material by a machine which receives its instructions from a Computer Aided Design (CAD) software command.

This is called additive manufacturing achieved using an additive process, where successive layers of material are laid down in different shapes by being squirted through nozzles onto a platform. This is different from traditional machining techniques, which use cutting, drilling, or molding processes (called subtractive processes) to make items.

A “3-D printer” will take a CAD design and physically make the object. Initially the “printers” only used plastics, but the newer models use chemicals, metals, and now, even human body parts.

According to a new article in the journal Science, scientists have built a 3-D printer that creates material resembling human tissues. The substance, a network of lipid bilayers separating droplets of water—rather like cell membranes, whose double layers allow the body’s cells to mesh with their watery environments while still protecting their contents.

The substance could one day be used to deliver drugs to the body—or perhaps even to replace damaged tissue in living organs.

The use of 3D scanning technologies allows the replication of real objects without the use of molding techniques. Objects as ubiquitous as smartphones can be used as 3D scanners: a company called Sculpteo unveiled a mobile app at a recent consumer electronics show that allows a 3D file to be generated directly via smartphone.

As an example of possible future applications, an open source group emerged in the US in 2012 that created the working components of an AR-15 rifle using a 3-D printer from Stratasys (see video below).

These, and other potential uses (see the video below for an experiment which used a 3-D printer to create a human kidney for transplant purposes) are set to not only change the way consumers buy products (by customizing them to their own specifications) but might also completely localize manufacturing.

If the correct chemicals become available for these printers (and there is no reason why they could not become readily available as raw materials) then there is no reason why people could not start “printing out” their own household goods, or even bricks to build houses.

All that will be required is a basic knowledge of CAD programing, a 3-D printer, and the raw materials to be used in the 3-D printer.

The cost of 3-D printers has decreased dramatically since they first were introduced, around two years ago. Several companies and individuals are already selling parts to build various “RepRap” (open source 3-D printers whose plans are available free online) for around $500.

Commercially manufactured consumer 3-D printers, designed for those who do not have the skills to build a RepRap printer themselves, vary in price up to $2,000 at present.

The open source Fab@Home project has, for example, developed printers for general use with anything that can be squirted through a nozzle, from chocolate to silicone and chemical reactants. Printers following the project's designs have been available from suppliers in kits or in pre-assembled form since 2012 at prices in the US$2000 range.

Just like the printer technology which leapfrogged from dot matrix to Laserjets, it seems inevitable that fully-equipped 3-D printers may yet become as common as everyday PC printers are today.

The real meaning of this technology lies in the fact that it grants individuals the ability to manufacture consumer goods at home. This in turn might spell the end of the “outsourcing” mania which has destroyed most western industry.

Whatever its future applications, this is a breakthrough which, like the Internet genie, is now out of the bottle and will be impossible to put back in.