Let me check in the back: how 3D printing will revolutionize future commerce

A commercially available, at home 3D printer from MakerBot Industries


Allow me to transport your mind for a moment. The year is 1999, being an “internet company” is still a viable business model, and Yahoo! makes hilarious commercials with the following premise: the internet will allow you to find and obtain anything you’ve ever wanted. Today, that’s kind of true. If I want to buy a product, hire a person with a specific skill set, or learn about a new topic, the internet is the first stop. I grew up in this era of instant gratification, at least with digital content, so to me, using the internet to obtain information is so common it’s mundane. Here in present day future land, an emerging technology known as “3D printing” is soon going to do for physical objects, even complex machines, what the internet did for the dissemination of digital information.

In a nutshell, 3D printing is a lot like regular printing… in three dimensions. If you accept the simplicity of a cop-out explanation, then you are well on your way to appreciating why 3D printing will be such a transformative technology. In a regular inkjet printer, paper is maneuvered in one dimension, say “X” on a coordinate plane, and a printing head moves in a second direction “Y”. The combined motion in X and Y allows for “two-dimensional” printing, but there is some minute third dimension even for these systems, as the deposited ink has a height on the page. With the addition of a third degree of freedom for movement into the “Z” direction, and replacing the ink with a substance that can be easily deposited and then frozen into place, this afterthought of a third dimension can be capitalized upon. With each successive pass in the XY directions the height grows in the Z direction. If the increments in the Z direction are small enough, even complex geometries can be made perfectly smooth.

3D Printers make intricate shapes by depositing small amounts of material in successive layers

This is similar to a physical application of a “Riemann Sum” used for graphically approximating integrals in calculus. This level of precision and flexibility in manufacturing is what makes the possibilities for 3D printing so bizarrely unreal. Typically, if a material cannot be extruded, milled, pressed, or molded by machines the only option is handcrafting by skilled artisans. Think your grandmothers heirloom dining room table versus anything on sale at IKEA. Scale, my friends, is the difference.

3D printing has enjoyed niche applications in producing product prototypes and custom-ordered artistic pieces. There are a lot of variations on the general technique I have just described, but one thing is for sure – if 3D printing ever reaches a “break-even” point with conventional people-actually-making-stuff manufacturing, the concept of supply and demand economics, that universal truth applying to huge quantities of product, will lose its relevance. 3D printing would allow supply and demand to approach a 1 to 1 ratio – there would never be any imbalance between the two. No reason for a sales clerk to check in the supply room for the last lamp or chair or dining room set or pair of sneakers, because it could just be printed on the spot. Scientists 1: Businessmen 0.  Admittedly, that’s a bit farfetched, but it’s certainly true that with a technology like 3D printing readily available and fully optimized, the gulf between items that are built by the zillions and given away in Happy Meals and manufacturing-intensive high-cost products will shrink. Items would go from existing on a shelf to existing on a hard-drive, made-to-order perhaps even at the point of sale.

So what’s the catch? Sounds like a sweet deal! For a lot of creative, inventive people, it already is. Take MakerBot Industries for example – the creators of their namesake the MakerBot Thing-o-Matic shown at the top of this article, which is a bonafide do-it-at-home tabletop 3D printer. There is already a bustling community of users who submit their own CAD (computer-aided design) drawings to the Thingiverse for anyone to download and print on their own. Don’t have a 3D printer (or don’t want to spend $1749 for the MakerBot design)? No worries – you can even submit your designs to a third party 3D printer (pun intended) like i.materialise online, and they will print it for you. I uploaded a simple CAD design from Thingiverse to get an idea of pricing. I used a “hose clamp-pinch valve” with dimensions of about 1.5 inches wide and 3 inches long that came to a price of $15.50 (made of polyimide (AKA nylon), which is unfortunately not one of the plastics with a designated recycling code) and $336 to make the clamp out of brass if I was feeling fancy. For the plastic part at least, that is surprisingly affordable when compared to buying a single item of similar size and material at a home improvement store, which might run $5-$10. With prices like that I’ll have to forgive i.materialise for probably naming their company during a board room meeting at a Starbucks.

But what if I had uploaded a design I had not gotten from an open source development site like Thingiverse or designed myself? What if I downloaded it on a peer-to-peer network or even copied an existing physical object in a store? Is it the responsibility of the people running the 3D printer to analyze every possible design for copyright violations? Is it mine? Certainly it would not be illegal for me to make my own pair of jeans inspired by, even identical to, a pair of Levi’s® if I had the ability and didn’t sell them? What if I had printed out a pair of Nike® basketball shoes with a big “G” on the side and gave a pair to my buddies?

This, unfortunately, will likely be the Achilles heel for the 3D printing industry, and it is discussed in some detail by Michael Weinberg at Public Knowledge in his hilariously titled white paper on the subject –  “It Will Be Awesome if They Don’t Screw it Up: 3D Printing, Intellectual Property, and the Fight Over the Next Great Disruptive Technology”. They, I guess refers to “the man”, who has been known for previous violations of pointing his plastic finger at Jimi Hendrix and suing college kids for downloading albums in their dorm rooms. Or, say I used my own 3D printing machine to make assault rifles in the comfort of my own home. It’s been done folks, but unlimited capability is no reason to fear but rather to understand, plan ahead, and compromise.

Use your printers wisely.



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Gordon Waller
Gordon is pursuing his PhD in Materials Science and Engineering and conducts research on lithium batteries. He likes cooking, textbooks, internet memes and the great outdoors. His viewpoint on science is that everything is more interesting when you understand how it works, also being able to impress (read annoy) your friends with your techno-lingo is a major perk.