3D printing promises some great things in the future, but there may be some perils along the way. This article takes a look at some of the potential benefits and dangers of 3D printing technology – both now and in the years to come.
Most of us think of printing as a strictly 2D technology, but that is no longer the case. While 3D printing is still relatively unknown to consumers, it has been making significant inroads in fields as diverse as biotechnology and manufacturing. The ability to create on-demand products and customized devices is certainly appealing, and practical applications are already starting to emerge.
Evolution of 3D Printing
What many people may not know is that 3D printing is not a new technology. In fact, the patents and other underpinnings of 3D printing go all the way back to the 1980s, before most of us were using cell phones or surfing the web.
In the early days, 3D printing technology was restricted to research labs and companies with deep pockets. Those early 3D printers cost tens of thousands of dollars, and they were slow, clunky machines with limited capabilities.
As with so much in the world of technology, the price of 3D printing technology has dropped significantly even as the capabilities of these machines have skyrocketed. Today there are consumer 3D printers that cost less than $1,000, putting the devices within the reach of avid hobbyists and tinkerers.
While some technology enthusiasts have been building their own 3D printers for years, the new lower price point has increased interest in the devices significantly. What was once the exclusive province of government labs and multinational corporations is now small and cheap enough to sit in the average living room (like the 3D Systems cube printer pictured below).
How Do 3D Printers Work?
Whether you are thinking about getting your very own 3D printer or just intrigued by the technology, it is important to understand how this unique form of printing works. As the name implies, the output of a 3D printer is a physical object, not just pixels on a page. To create those 3D objects, the device uses a computer-assisted design (CAD) program to design the object. The CAD program creates interactive 3D images that can be manipulated and changed before sending the final product to the printer.
Printer owners do not have to design their own items from scratch, although that is one of the most appealing aspects of 3D printing. There are ready-made printable templates all over the Internet, covering every conceivable type of product. These templates can be great for those new to 3D printing, since they help smooth the learning curve and make it easier to get started.
Once users have the file, they can send it to the 3D printer in much the same way they would send a document to a traditional printer. The 3D printer uses a technology called additive printing to essentially build a 3-dimensional object one layer at a time.
3D printers use a number of different materials to create the finished product, from melted plastic, thin metal or paper. Some 3D printers even use edible items like chocolate to create elaborate (and delicious) designs. No matter what the raw material, it comes out of the printer through a nozzle, just like the ink in a traditional printer.
The spools of material can be costly, but printer owners are already used to that. Depending on the material, 3D printer owners can expect to pay between $20 and $75 for each spool of raw material.
What Are The Concerns?
The technology behind 3D printing has already shown great promise in everything from commercial and manufacturing applications to medicine and biotechnology. Researchers have even printed organs for transplant and tested them in the real world, while pharmaceutical manufacturers have printed pills and other viable treatments.
3D printing technology has been getting so good and moving so fast that some people worry it could get out of control or be used for nefarious purposes. Some security experts worry, for instance, that criminals could use 3D printers to build their own plastic guns – weapons that could get through the screening devices used at airports. Some enterprising people have indeed printed functional weapons using standard 3D printers (See image below), but the technology for mass-producing those weapons is still a few years off. In the future, however, law enforcement will need to worry about the peril, as well as the promise, of 3D printing technology.