The magic boxes that will change the world
Even in their simplest form, Lego blocks are remarkably versatile. By adding layer upon layer of blocks to one another you can create almost any shape. Lego blocks are kind of clunky and prone to falling apart, but what if they were imperceptibly small and bonded to one another permanently? You could build anything.
This is the core idea behind 3D printing, a technology that will dramatically reshape the world.
While not actually Lego-based, 3D printing is a blanket term for a number of products that build physical objects layer by layer. Some printers extrude resin from a very fine nozzle, some mix glue with powder, others use light to harden a plastic goop layer by layer, and there are even approaches using lasers and metal dust. The techniques vary in cost, speed, printable materials, and resolution, but they’re all getting cheaper, faster, capable of handling more substances, and more precise. This is all well and good, but it’s still a very dry way of describing the promise of 3D printing. Said with a bit more flair: we’re moving towards a world where anyone can have a magic box in their home that can produce any object.
Complexity isn’t the only promise: we’re also looking at a world of physical personalization.
This might sound like we’re overstating the case. If we are, it isn’t by much.
Today’s hobbyist 3D printers, the kinds being built in garages out of do-it-yourself kits that can be purchased online, can easily print static objects like chess sets or action figures. That’s pretty cool, but not yet world-changing. Higher resolution, more expensive printers can print complex objects with moving parts; in one example a grandfather clock, complete with all the complex moving gears you might expect, was printed in one shot and hung on the wall to tell time. In one cutting edge example, resin was replaced with human cells. This allowed scientists to print a kidney from scratch. While the organ wasn’t ready for implantation, it will be someday soon. Given the level of complexity we’re already dabbling in, it’s not hard to imagine a printer that can print plastic and ceramic just as easily as it prints silicon, meaning that even technological components, or complete devices, could be printed easily.
Complexity isn’t the only promise: we’re also looking at a world of physical personalization. One of the core reasons the iPod was so thoroughly accepted into consumer lifestyles was that, by design, it was personalized to the tastes of every user through something very intimate: their taste in music. Once filled with mp3s, each iPod became a unique reflection of its owner. Because 3D printing is an additive, on-the-fly process, it’s trivially easy to customize physical products so that they reflect the tastes and shapes of the people who will be interacting with them. We soon won’t have to worry about sports equipment that’s slightly too big, too small, too heavy, or too light: our sports equipment will be custom-tailored to the parameters that define and describe our bodies. Even this fact has some interesting applications on theft: why would anyone steal an object that’s custom designed to work with only one specific body?
3D printing has some other interesting forces in its corner. Concerns around globalization, the environment, domestic labour and the cost of oil have pushed many consumers to prefer buying locally. Already “100 mile diets” are becoming fashionable and responsible. In a world of ubiquitous 3D printers, it’s not hard to imagine a “5 mile lifestyle,” where everything a person uses and consumers originate from within a few blocks. While the 3d printed material still needs to come from somewhere, a tremendous amount of waste from shipping containers and production runoff can be largely sidestepped.
We’ve grown jaded to much of the incredible technology that makes up the world as we know it. Despite the fact that smartphones are incredible and even the food we eat is a technological triumph, they don’t feel like the magical future. Beyond the technological achievement, beyond the economics, beyond the personalization, 3D printing is something we can feel excited about. The next generation of garage hobbyists now have something almost magical at their disposal as they work to invent tomorrow.