For the past two decades, the printer world has been fairly staid and predictable, with the last major advancement being color printing for the masses. Now, all of a sudden, things are getting really interesting again.
Enter the world of 3D printing, in which actual objects are replicated, in whole, at the printer site. But it's going to require a little more than a five-dollar ream of paper to produce its output. As explained by The New York Times' Peter DaSilva, a 3-D printer "creates an object by stacking one layer of material — typically plastic or metal — on top of another, much the same way a pastry chef makes baklava with sheets of phyllo dough."
The Times even has a snazzy word for the technology: "desktop manufacturing." Essentially, software is putting the final assembly together. And these printers are offered in a range of sizes, with one even large enough to reproduce the walls of houses.
Some examples of companies employing 3D printers cited by DaSilva:
- San Francisco-based Bespoke Innovations, a startup, will be replicating "designer body parts," such as prosthetic limbs, at a fraction of their previous cost.
- Contour Crafting, a California homebuilder, will be "printing" out entire walls of houses, based on computer-generated patterns sent to a concrete-fed printer.
- Colorado-based LGM employs a 3-D printer to create models of buildings and resorts for architectural firms.
- Amsterdam-based Freedom of Creation prints iPhine cases, as well as exotic furniture and other fixtures for hotels and restaurants.
3-D printers range in price from $10,000 to $100,000, but prices have been falling fast. There is enormous potential for innovation with these devices. Dimension 3D Printing, a brand of Stratasys Inc., for example, just announced the winners in its sixth annual "Extreme Redesign" challenge, a global design-and- 3D-printing contest and scholarship for high school and college students.
Winning printable designs included wind turbine blades that operated from passing traffic to power streetlights; a solar-powered "Electricity Usage Meter," designed to create a monitoring device that displays the amount of electricity a household electrical appliance uses; and a "Robo-Prosthetic Development Platform," designed to create an adaptable platform to aid in the development of prosthetic systems for the human hand, based on a 3D assembly that snaps together forming smoothly sliding joints capable of handling every day objects. Another student designed printable human-like figure for use in stop-motion films, to replace characters made from clay. (Remember Rudolph and the Abominable Snowman?)
Just as significantly, desktop manufacturing may bring entire industries back to North American soil. As Scott Summit, co-founder of BeSpoke put it in the Times piece: “there is nothing to be gained by going overseas except for higher shipping charges."
Wow -- imagine the possibilities if stuff now manufactured overseas can suddenly be cranked out, on the spot, from these 3D printers. Imagine, for example, clothing and automobiles being "printed" en masse.