Monday, March 4, 2013

Ready, Set...3D print!

My first exposure to 3D printing was in late 2011.  My dentist had been advising me to get a crown and I couldn’t put it off any longer. I knew the routine, having endured a crown before. At the first visit the dentist would take a mold of my tooth; ship it off to a crown making shop; and 2 weeks later, I would be back in the chair for the fitting. Pure joy.

I settled into the dentist's chair and away we went, but I soon realized something had changed. No one was getting a mold of my tooth. Instead Dr. Kim pulled up a computer on a mobile station and started fashioning a crown on the screen. "What's that Doc?” I asked. “Now, we build our crowns right here,” he told me, and then proceeded to move the monitor up so that I could see him design and build my crown on the screen right in front of me. Half an hour later, the crown had been "printed,” a few more minutes to install, and I was on my way. I now have a 3D-printed tooth in my mouth, and so do millions of others.

You know 3D printing is serious when the President mentions it in the State of the Union address. He lauded the White House's efforts last year to create a 3D printing lab in Youngstown, Ohio.

What many of us may not know is how long 3D printing has been around. Consider this:

·         Carl Deckard and Joe Beamen invented the pre-cursor to today’s 3D printing at the University of Texas back in 1986, just about five years into the PC era.

·         3D printing has been a relatively common occurrence in most manufacturing shops for some time.

·         There are more than thirty-two 3D printed parts in the Boeing 787 Dreamliner (No, not the battery).

·         The Mars Rover Curiosity has several parts made by 3D printers at NASA.

·         The chances are very high that parts of your car, like your dashboard, were prototyped on a 3D printer.

·         Microsoft managed to release several new hardware devices, like the Surface, by using 3D printing, helping to keep it all tightly under wraps.

·         In 2011, $ 1.7 billion of goods fabricated on 3D printers were sold.

·         Heck, even Stephen Colbert has had a replica of himself made on a 3D printer. In the world of the millennials – this alone, has made this type of printing a serious consideration.

Let’s answer the most obvious question: Is a 3D printer like a regular printer you have at home?

Not exactly. Your home printer uses two dimensions. 3D printing involves layering materials into three dimensions.

The designs comes from your computer. At its more basic level, 3D printers are more akin to a manufacturing process. There are a plethora of materials which can be used for such printing, but generally some kind of plastics is being used at this point. Design becomes essential, and not many users are able to use complex design tools. So for now, these are being made by the 3D design experts and they are available for download from the Internet.

The process, layering, creates an unusual opportunity. Most of what humans build is by removing materials to create something – Da Vinci chiseled from a chunk of marble. Or, by constructing the framework, the scaffolding, and adding in all the smaller parts in the most efficient manner to sustain the structure. That has changed with this kind of printing. Now you can layer the faucet right into the sink; the scissor hinge into the scissors; and build a shoe starting with the heel all in one piece (see below). The kind of designs which are now possible to make, creates a brand new landscape for new ways of building things, incrementally, one layer at a time, in any order you choose.

Companies like 3D Systems and MakerBot are making these printers. The latter has printers with names like "cupcakes".  I love it. These devices are the size of a microwave oven; and can print a 3D object the size of a large legal book. As more are sold, costs will come down rapidly. Multi-material printers will become commonplace. and even designing will get easier.

So what can we expect?

We can expect to see manufacturing become the domain of more people. One-of-a-kind manufacturing will cost no more than large scale manufacturing (the at-home Da Vinci?). There is no additional cost in using a different design, swapping daily, or even hourly. Small scale manufacturing shops will soar.

New products and even replacement parts will be made at home.  Medical devices like hearing aids, artificial limbs, teeth, and yes, even artificial organs are already outputs of 3D printers. Stem cells have been used to create a part of a human ear (see below). Even food can be “printed”.

Imagine printing toys at Christmas for the kids, like the car below. Your child was just invited to a birthday party, and you don’t have a gift handy. No problem. Print out a toy!

Or think of an array of larger 3D printers at your neighborhood library or Staples, where you can print a new dashboard for your car in a different color. Print your own guitar (like the one shown below), a new lamp, even furniture and now a drivable car like the one shown below.

As with every new technology, new challenges arise. Poor designs will print poor parts. Anyone can print any part. Ethics associated with creating human organs will need to be sorted through. And who will own these designs? What about the patents and rights? How can something like this be regulated, if you made it for yourself, and did so at home? (Gives new meaning to home grown and DIY weekend projects.)

Many of us believe that the 3D printing revolution will be game changing. A home 3D printer costs a shade over $ 1,000. It is this affordable nature of the technology which makes it so interesting. In the hands of millions of home users, the sky is now the limit. Let the printing begin.


  1. Mukul, what would you say is the best printer under $4000? I've seen many kick starter printers but they all seem to have issues with build quality and maintenance.

    I want to print ABS/PLA good quality, and need something reliable!

    1. Good question Cesar. Check this link out:

  2. "With the IPO of another 3D printer manufacturer, investors could be ready to support a 3D printing ETF" you will be able to buy 3D printing companies in one place.

  3. Now they are opening 3D printing stores:

  4. What do you think is the impact of encryption on these new 3D designs? How will folks be able to protect their designs?

    1. You are absolutely correct. We are going to need some way to be able to enforce copyrights on designs. It appears some of the early encryption methodologies for such protection, are weak. More work will need to be done.

  5. First, Boeing and now the RAF has 3D printed parts..