Anyone who has ever watched an episode of any of the Star Trek television shows has wanted a replicator in their home. Honestly, who doesn’t want the ability to create anything from delicious food to medical equipment at the touch of a button? While currently we can’t snap our fingers and make things appear by rearranging matter atom-by-atom, we can create items designed in a computer thanks to 3D printing technology. With companies like MakerBot and Solidoodle making large strides towards affordable, consumer-oriented 3D printing devices, the question arises as to how extrusion printing may affect our everyday lives and the global economy as a whole. There are significant questions facing the technology before it can be called useful, but the answers are closer than ever before.
The most pressing issue is whether or not we will ever be able to create items that actually have some sort of intrinsic value that would preclude you from simply ordering them from Amazon or other online retailer. The convenience of being able to click a button from the comfort of your home and have your desired item show up on your doorstep two days later is a powerful influence on today’s consumer. Can 3D printing compete with these retailers in its current form? The answer is of course, not yet. While enthusiasts for the technology are currently printing items like the working wood lathe that you can watch in the video below, having to actually design and assemble the item yourself is something that’s alien to a large majority of people. However, with sites like Thingiverse, which allows people to share ready-made designs in an open-source manner, I think we will see a gradual shift that will help speed along advances in the technology.
Where 3D printing will most likely take off in a way that impacts your everyday life is in the 'on-demand' arena. For example, the US military right now has the ability to email a tool to maintenance units stationed around the world so that they can print it off rather than wait for a supply drop. This coupled with the fact that 3D printers are able to create just-in-time parts for planes and land-based vehicles that use composite materials make the technology incredibly vital. To put this in a practical perspective for you, imagine you were going on a long road trip, where you would be camping at various locations. Your storage capacity is limited by physical size and fuel costs to haul items around. Instead of packing cups, plastic utensils, plates and other various sundries you could simply pack one of the smaller 3D printers and a computer to create these items on an as-needed basis. Even better, if you use PLA-based resins, the items you create will be compostable!
Now apply that concept mentioned above to your everyday life. Because PLA filament is made from corn, it’s something that could be very plentiful. It also stands to reason that there could be quite a supply of printing material for sale right in your backyard. Now, say that you had a 3D printer like the Solidoodle (pictured above) in your home. It’s a small, affordable unit that would cost you $499 (£320) to own, not much more than a nice laser printer for documents and less than an iPad. You could save yourself money and fuel by printing items off at home rather than going to your local store and buying them. There is a trade-off - the time it takes to actually create the items on the printer - but with the ability to set and forget today’s available models, you could be busy doing other things while it was busy creating items.
So is 3D printing going to change your life? Yes and no. There’s certainly an interesting value in the idea of being able to print things to fix items in your home or vehicle, or a new pair of kicks for your rapidly growing children like the one pictured above (which was made by Clarks, using a 3D ZPrinter). But this technology is in its infancy, and needs time to grow and mature into a robust method of production. Right now, it’s an exciting area of development that has a lot of potential - but big questions still remain about the overall efficiency of 3D printing, the ability to create complete devices that don’t require self-assembly, and the durability of finished 3D objects.