3D Printers More Affordable, Simple Than Ever, But Not a Threat

By Wayne Rash  |  Posted 2013-03-11 Print this article Print

But the fact is that now that MakerBot has brought 3D printing and now 3D scanning to the world of consumers, the technology has also become disruptive. Some years ago 3D printing was expensive, which limited it mainly to medical, forensic and archeological studies, such as the reconstruction of the skull of England’s King Richard III, or to the dental lab where technicians can create a cap or an implant in a few minutes. Now, anyone with some technical knowledge and a couple thousand dollars can start printing objects they create, objects they can download from MakerBot’s library of things (the Thingiverse) or objects they can share by email.

But suppose you were to email an object that’s really dangerous? With current consumer technology, it’s certainly possible that you could e-mail a sharp object such as a hunting knife, but you can also go buy one at Wal-Mart for a lot less money and it’ll probably be a better knife.

The thing that people forget about 3D printers is that they create objects out of easily moldable plastic or in some cases laser sintered plastic. The objects they turn out are normally a model of an object that you plan to manufacture out of some more durable material. Likewise, 3D printers are limited in their resolution to something approximating the thickness of a human hair, which averages 100 microns in diameter. That’s pretty exact, but it’s not precise enough for really dangerous stuff, like nuclear weapon parts.

But that doesn’t make easy, inexpensive 3D printing any less disruptive. At this point we really don’t know what’s going to come out of the ability to rapidly and inexpensively create objects then press a button to make accurate copies of them. We don’t know what will happen when people can have an infinite storehouse of objects they need and will need to be replaced eventually. You never have to worry about running out of Lego blocks, for example, but more important, you can invent new and different Lego blocks and share them with others.

What’s actually happened is something that’s an improvement on things that we have been doing for centuries. A few millions years ago a hunter somewhere created a more effective arrowhead, but only after 100 tries accomplished by painstakingly flaking pieces of flint by hand. But once that design was known to work, then others could copy the design, and an entire group would have more effective arrow heads.

What MakerBot and other machines like it have accomplished is the modern equivalent of that hand-crafted arrowhead prototype, but improved by a magnitude of hundreds. It will change much about how some companies do business, but it’s nothing to be afraid of.


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