3D printing may be the most exciting technological advancement of our time. 3D printing deserves all the media coverage it receives. Yet at times, 3D scanners and printers have been in the news for all the wrong reasons.
The papers tend to focus on niche stories like the production of 3D printed weapons. Although technology isn’t always used responsibly, this is just one small example of a process which is going to shape our lives more than many realise. The broader trend of 3D printer use is a far more important news story.
What is 3D Printing?
3D printing is an incredibly complicated process that can actually be explained in rather simple terms: a three-dimensional image that's either been scanned into the computer via a 3D scanner or drawn from scratch, is put into a piece of CAD (computer aided design) software, which can then be read by a 3D printing machine. The machine is able to create a 100% accurate model of that 3D image via an additive manufacturing process that adds layers of materials (liquids, powders, or extruded filaments) in a series of cross-sections in different shapes.
These sections are then fused together to create the final shape, which should be a completely accurate representation of the digital model. Printing can take different stretches of time, from a few hours to a number of days - depending on the power of the printer and the complexity of the model.
3D printing has already revolutionised model prototypes, but with increased power, it's not unreasonable to expect that 3D printers will become the future of mass production. Their slow print speeds limit them to industrial and hobby use at the moment, but once print speeds are increased, the production lines of the future could potentially be 'worker free'.
Model makers and artists have really taken to 3D printing, with 3D scanners allowing them to make perfect copies of their creations and 3D printers allowing them to visualise their ideas like never before. Independent companies are also using 3D printing in fresh, exciting ways. One American company, for example, has created a fully functioning 3D printed guitar.
One of the major criticisms of 3D printing is that it could potentially cause global job losses in the industrial sector and cause irreparable harm to international trading. It's also been theorised that it might cause significant problems in court thanks to the inevitable lawsuits that would arise when it comes to copyright and product ownership.
It is hoped, however, that as the technology becomes more standardised there will be new laws put into place that can help the justice system adapt. 3D scanners and printers could also save businesses countless billions in production costs.
As with any important new development, the challenges and opportunities need to be weighed and considered before any drastic measures are taken. People are generally adverse to change, but the fact of the matter is that 3D printing is here to stay, and it won't be long before we all start to reap the benefits.
There are many theoretical applications for 3D printing that might initially seem like the stuff of science fiction. 3D printed bionic human organs and 3D printed food is already being produced.
To the world at large right now, 3D printing is either a vague, minor threat or a fun gimmick. One day, you'll be able to create a design on your home computer in the morning, which can be printed in physical space on the other side of the world by the end of the day. Don't let the scaremongers put you off, 3D printing really is the future!