3D Printing; Prospects and Pitfalls

In home printing of consumer goods could be much closer to becoming a reality than many of us appreciate and it may very well be devastating for our economy and environment.

Industries could be reshaped, if not crushed, by internet enabled at home production. Entire factories of people could find themselves displaced as components for the automotive or aerospace industry are printed into place on site. It becomes increasingly difficult to find a job creating a part that can be printed for a tenth of the cost, while being of consistently better quality.

If we are printing products in our home then what becomes of employment opportunities in traditional retail outlets? If you can turn on your computer, download the designs for the items you need or want and then print them yourself why do you need to go to a mall? Of course this also impacts on transport, if we are not going to shops to buy products then there becomes little need for transporting products. This is what makes this technology a double edged sword, from the confines of a work to pay to live economy the efficiency of at home product manufacture costs jobs.

Where Did This Technology Come From?

Additive manufacturing or 3D printing is not a new technology, first developed by Charles Hull in 1984 who received a patent for the “Apparatus for Production of Three-Dimensional Objects by stereolithography” on 11 March 1986. Hull defined stereolithography as a method and apparatus for making solid objects by successively “printing” thin layers of an ultraviolet curable material one on top of the other. This method of manufacturing has come a long way since 1984, moving from rapid prototyping making use of a single print media to High-Volume Print Forming using as many as six materials at a time, and the range of those materials being almost limitless.

Some of the materials on offer include;

  • Glass-ceramic composites
  • Nylon
  • Resigns
  • Structural metals such as nickel alloys, stainless steel, iron
  • Conductors such as palladium, silver, gold, platinum
  • A wide variety of plastics with and without fillers and
  • Gypsum

 

These machines are entering the commercial/home market with products such as the RepRap range of 3D printers. While not nearly as sophisticated as their industrial counterparts, as with anything, it will only be a matter of time before we are using 3D printers which far exceed the expectations of the inventors of this technology in our homes.

The Efficiency of 3D Printing

There are serious benefits to consider which come with the use of additive manufacturing techniques, an obvious one is the considerable reduction in waste material created in the production process. Subtractive techniques generate waste as a result of the process of creating through the removal of material, requiring there being surplus material. For parts of the aircraft industry there can be as much as 90% material being cut away to produce a part, with the excess material being no longer useful in the production of aircraft. The production of similar parts through the additive printing process creates the bare minimum of waste and at times the finished product can be as much as 60% lighter without sacrificing strength.

Even the production of consumer goods such as cars could become affected when parts can simply be printed as opposed to machined in the traditional sense, resulting in less need for complex machines such as lathes and milling machines, as well as the people skilled in their operation. Or we could find entire cars printed, completely changing the face of car manufacturing, retail and servicing.

The speed of production is also vastly improved with the additive printing format, while subtractive techniques may take several days or even weeks to go from prototype to end product additive techniques can accomplish the same outcome in a matter of hours. AS the production is based on 3D computer modelling making alterations or custom parts is considerably easier to accomplish.

There is significant benefit to the quality of products when produced through the 3D printing method, as instead of using a large piece of raw material to generate the finished work which may have anomalies and slight imperfections in it, the additive process allows for precise control of where each layer is placed and how they fit together. This not only creates better products through material use but also extends the life of these products. Clearly this can also be seen as a drawback for manufactures who require a shorter life cycle for their product to remain profitable and a definite advantage for end consumers.

We also have bioprinting which artificially constructs living tissue by outputting layer-upon-layer of living cells from the patient’s own body, taking the chance of rejection for organs produced in this way to almost null. We are quickly reaching a time which will see organ donation as a thing of the past, when antirejection drugs are simply not needed. Imagine finding out you have liver or kidney disease, going to the doctor and having cells harvested from your own body and cultured, then returning a week later to have a new kidney or liver put into your body. An organ that is made out of your own cells, that is essentially you. What may surprise some people is this is not only something we could do one day, it has already happened. Surgeon Anthony Atala has already successfully put an engineered and printed kidney into a patient in 2001.

Just the idea that we can seriously discuss the printing of human organs boggles the mind, never mind the pace with which these advances are being made. The widespread use of this technology is not centuries or even decades away, but years and many of us will live to see it come to be regularly used in the field of medicine.

Due to the digital nature of additive manufacturing technology there are clear ecological benefits to be had, as products can be designed in one location and sent via the internet to the location where it is needed, resulting in less “real world” transportation and a much lower ecological footprint for the finished product. This, of course, is not the best case scenario for traditional shipping companies.

As with any technological advancement additive manufacturing also has potential drawbacks, mainly in regard to our current social operation. It should come as no great surprise that with the ability to print products from the comfort of our own homes there will be impacts for the industrial manufacturing sector, which will result in a reduction of required production translating directly into job losses. As commercially available 3D printers are improved we could find a vast segment of the industrial production sector will be affected.

This would also clearly impact retail outlets, leaving many out of work and unable to take part in the continual consumption which is required in our current growth paradigm. This technology has the potential to impact the entire production and distribution chain of our economy. Printing products in our homes means we don’t need those products in shops, means we don’t need those products shipped to retail stores, means we don’t need them produced in factories all over the world. How many jobs could be replaced by 3D printing in our own homes, tens of thousands, millions?

Printing Waste and Danger

The ease of simply printing goods could also lead to an incredible increase in the amount of rubbish we are throwing away. If every family in the western world alone who currently owns a desktop printer suddenly found themselves the proud owners of a 3D printer, such as a “RepRap”, our current consumption for the sake of consumption mindset could lead to what would seem almost endless amounts of materialistic garbage being printed and enviably thrown away. The environmental impacts could potentially far outweigh the benefits of the technology if we were not mentally prepared to consider the damage we could do to our biosphere.

There are also truly aberrant uses of the technology to consider, printing guns is one that springs to mind. It becomes extremely difficult to keep these items out of the hands of the mentally ill, or indeed children, when they can simply be printed at home. While it is guns today how long will it be before people are printing drones, which of course could be equipped with a gun?

It is not going to be enough to try and find interesting new ways to limit the scope of 3D printing, the printers are already in homes and if you own one you can use it it to print another one. It is time we start to ask some more difficult questions, such as what is generating the propensity in some people toward violent or aberrant behaviour and what can we do about it?

Indeed as our technological ability as a species surges forward so must our social model and global understanding be elevated in order that these technologies can be allowed to improve life, as opposed to becoming the tools which increase the speed and efficiency with which we will secure our own environmental and social demise.

It must become a social imperative for all of us to begin to have a discussion with each other about what is and what is not important, to question and come to understand where our current economic and social order is taking us and why. Once we can address these topics rationally we will be able to ascertain the true value of life, biodiversity, our greater planetary environment and work toward finding ways to secure and enhance these aspects of existence.

Feature Image
Abandoned Furniture Factory by Jan Bommes CC BY 2.0
Makerbot Industries – Replicator 2 – 3D-printer by Creative Tools CC BY 2.0

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About Sean Hurley

Sean views society as changeable, and seeks to investigate, challenge and bring into question our current social system of organisation, treating nothing as taboo or unchangeable. Twitter Facebook G+