Visions

Future Tech: How 3D Printing Will Change the World

From new iPhone cases to new body parts, here's the good, the bad and the grotesque of this new technology.

Photo Credit: Mary MacTavish

3D printing is a hot topic right now, especially with reports of this incredible technology entering the consumer marketplace. The prices are dropping as more companies attempt consumer-grade machines. Is it time to start looking forward to a time when we all have a Star Trek-like replicator at home to produce everything we want, when we want it?

While the technology isn’t nearly as versatile or as user-friendly as the science fiction dream, the implications include the potential to provide the things we need in much greener, less-centralized, less resource-intensive way. But, as with any new technology, there are also potential negative effects to balance the scales. Over the long run, the human imagination will no doubt concoct new uses that appear grotesque to us now but may make sense as the technology becomes ubiquitous and famiiar.

In short: as with so many human inventions, the future of 3D printing includes the good, the bad and the grotesque.

The Good

3D printing actually refers to a range of different technologies for making a three-dimensional object from a digital file. First, the dimensions and details of the object must be drafted out in CAD (computer-aided design) software. The CAD file provides the directions by which the machine builds the object, laying down molecules layer by layer and line by line much like an inkjet printer. How the machine prints the object depends on the type of technology used by the manufacturer.

The first rapid prototyping machine using 3D printing technology went into commercial use in 1986. Since then, the machines have become ubiquitous in commercial manufacturing shops. At first, they enabled companies to more quickly produce plastic prototypes on site, but the real benefit has come from their expanded use as additive manufacturing machines—a product can be manufactured by adding resources rather than the conventional way of subtracting from a larger hunk of material by grinding, drilling, sanding, etc.

Thanks to the ability to build a product from the bottom up, 3D printers can print shapes that cannot be viably manufactured any other way. For example, Airbus is using 3D printers to make airplane parts lighter—allowing the plane to use less fuel—without sacrificing strength and safety. People with missing limbs can have custom prosthetics 3D printed to their personal shape, capability and style.

3D printing also means significantly less waste. Traditional forms of machining often leave up to 90 percent of a slab of metal on the machine shop floor, but additive manufacturing generates far less waste in the first place, and also makes it easier to reuse anything that's left over. The machines are also the ultimate expression of "just-in-time" manufacturing: a company can manufacture a needed part instantly, right on the spot, rather than depend on the old system that required parts to be manufactured in mass quantities, stored in massive warehouses and shipped to far-flung locations.

To further lower the resource footprint on our products, some researchers are working on attaching recycling machines to allow manufacturers and hobbyists to reduce their ordering of raw injection materials which they have to order from somewhere else. When 3D printers are ready to saturate the home-use market, they may provide an almost fully self-contained system. When printed items break or need replacement, home users could simply recycle them into the machine, creating a cradle-to-cradle system—the Holy Grail for recycling advocates.

The primary costs are in the machine itself and in the consumables or injection materials. Which injection material your home machine uses depends on the company, the type of printer you have, and which material you want to make your item from. 3D printers are able to manufacture items from various plastics and metals as well as glass, wood, food and even living cells. Most of the cheaper machines are limited to plastic, but many will function with more than one type of plastic.

Consumers are also able to order 3D printed items online, and 3D printer shops similar to Kinkos are opening in local neighborhoods for a faster turnaround. You can find or buy the CAD file for your desired item on the Web, download it, send it to your local print shop, and then go pick up the item in a few hours. These companies grant consumers and small businesses all the benefit of custom additive manufacturing without the hassle of learning CAD (computer-aided design) and handling a machine that may pose potential dangers such as toxic fumes or exposed moving parts. Some of the cheaper machines rely on consumer wisdom -- in the loosest sense of the word -- to allow ventilation and to avoid touching exposed areas.

The range of items we can self-manufacture this way is as limitless as the ingenuity of the Web. Simply hop online, find an appropriate CAD design and print it from your printer—et voila, you have the means to make a lamp out of your grandmother’s old cane. Or print out a set of Legos for your kids, new food containers, custom iPhone covers, and any other practical plastic curiosity that your household needs.

If home-based 3D printing takes off and goes prime-time, online stores and large mass manufacturers will almost certainly find their business models threatened as digital technology again forces a massive change to retail business models. The mall and the factory -- the cornerstones of American consumer culture -- will both find themselves increasingly irrelevant.

The Bad

No matter how awesome the potential may be for any technology, a downside is always waiting to rear its ugly head. John Smart points out in his Fourth Law of Technology that the first generation of a new technology is almost always more dehumanizing than it is beneficial -- and 3D printing is unlikely to be an exception. Never underestimate the ingenuity humans will bring to apply any new technology to their worst impulses. Consider how the Internet has served the causes of racism, sexism and kittie porn (those lol-cats drive me up the wall!).

The Internet liberated people to say things online that they would not say in public -- and find like-minded people who confirmed those views. Now, all those same scary people isolated in their homes and addicted to trolling can make 3D objects of mischief in any size, shape and color their twisted imaginations can conjure.

Paramount Studios recently sent a cease-and-desist letter to someone who posted designs for a toy that was a licensed item based on one of the studio's movies. Lawyers are going to get rich writing those letters in the near term, but in the longer term, it's going to be hard to stop anyone from posting downloadable designs on the Internet for home 3D printers to create any novelty they choose. The same concerns over intellectual property the music industry has been whining about for more than a decade are now about to be visited on manufactured goods as well.

And some of those objects will be dangerous. Weapons like knives or clubs can be printed in any shape and practicable material. In some US states, every part of the AR-15, a popular firearm, can be purchased without a license except for the lower receiver. Recently the design for the lower receiver was posted on Thingiverse, a Web site where users share 3D printer design files. That last part can now be printed in the privacy of an individual’s home, license free. Some are arguing about whether the plastic lower receiver is good enough to be functional, but the larger point is clear: assuming the design works, any 3D printer that can handle metal or polymers can privately print out the necessary part for a functional, unregistered gun.

While homemade firearms are nothing new—and usually legal in most US states—3D printing could make it easier to create them, and thus ensure that we'll have many, many more of them in circulation. Regardless of your views about the US Constitution and the right to bear arms, this could eventually place an arsenal of untraceable guns in the hands of people who would not be able to legally buy them. Plus, America’s gun violence will be easy to export—right over the Internet—to other countries that have stricter gun ownership regulations.

Printing items covered by intellectual property law poses legal and financial as well as security concerns. In Texas, a small band of thieves used a 3D printer to make an ATM card scanner which they installed in ATMs around their city. They then stole about $400,000 before being caught. Also, i.Materialise, an online 3D printing service, reports that a customer attempted to pass a design for an ATM scanner through their service. They say the design was rejected, but they still receive searches for ATM scanners on their Web site indicating that criminals are hoping to enter the black market enabled by 3D printing.

The Texas thieves paid for their crimes, but future criminals might not. A member of a German recreational lock-picking club designed a key to Dutch handcuffs just by looking at a photo he took of an officer’s key being worn by the police officer. (That’s right! He built a key just by looking at a photo.) He then printed a copy to prove it worked, and posted the new design online. Dutch police have not reported the use of a 3D printed key, but if a recreational club member can do it, certainly real criminals can too.

3D printing even has the potential to completely undermine the war on drugs. Researchers at the University of Glasgow have developed a system that would print the necessary lab equipment to create pharmaceuticals. While this kind of technology has the potential to democratize the pharmaceutical industry, it might also enable people to print illegal narcotics from home in a way that's far safer and less detectable than a garage-based meth lab. It also means that the drugs people buy could become more dangerous than they are now, with black marketeers experimenting constantly with new substances and treating their customers as guinea pigs.

The Grotesque

3D printing is about more than just making fake plastic trees. It represents a new paradigm, additive manufacturing, which is a complete revolution in thinking about how we create many of the common objects that surround us and support our lives.

For instance, researchers at Wake Forest University are using the technology to print new skin directly onto a burn wound. They scan a burn victim’s wound into a computer, which in turn creates a 3D image with the exact size and shape of the wound. The printer then prints new layers of cells—using skin instead of ink—directly onto the lesion. Developed for US troops in Afghanistan, the whole process takes only an hour.

3D bioprinting research could eventually lead to the printing of organs ready for implantation. That would mean no more waiting lists for organs and no more age restrictions on said organs. The organ donation system might be left to the lower classes as the wealthy take advantage of all kinds of new transhumanist life-extension techniques, replacing everything from faces to eyeballs to livers as they wear out due to age.

And here's where it gets really weird. What if the long-term future for 3D bioprinting converged with some of the stranger aspects of transhumanism? Could additive manufacturing turn into additive biohacking? Instead of taking away from one body and giving it to another like organ transplants do, bioprinting new organs could change how society thinks about implants. The cyborg visions of using digital technology to enhance our bodies could become reality as people use bioprinted body parts—as well as other biological means—to heighten their existing abilities.

We're already heading down this path: people are already implanting magnets in their wrists and RFIDs in their arms. Rahel Aima suggests that some people may eventually want an extra ear, or a second set of eyes placed on the sides of their heads to give them full 360-degree vision. If someone, for reasons we can't fathom right now, decided they wanted a third eye on their forehead or a third arm growing from their back, they could have it. The ethics will be moot once 3D bioprinting can enable the creation of fresh body parts.

As with any cultural postulations about the future, the idea of bioprinting extra arms to implant them on a presumably sane person sounds ridiculous—until you look at the dozens of women who are already beautiful but who would prefer to look like circus freaks with abnormally plump lips, button noses and shiny skin. A quick glance in any celebrity tabloid will provide dozens of prime examples of men and women of almost any age who look like plastic mannequins. (And let's not get into the whys and wheres and hows of people's tattoo and piercing choices.) If you doubt whether anyone will be brave enough to attempt a grotesque fashion statement using 3D bioprinted body parts, just ask Cat Man, Dennis Avner, who has augmented his face to look like that of a tiger. However, unlike Cat Man’s augmentations, the implanted 3D printed body parts could actually be useful.

As robotics and automation increase over the years, more people may try to get an edge in the job market with specific augmentations that will enable them to perform certain unique tasks. If the human body can adjust to a third or fourth arm, data entry professionals could become more efficient by drinking water with their third hand while the other two continue typing. Lumberjacks could more easily climb trees with their tools in hand. Companies may even offer to pay for the operation if the employee is willing to sign a five- or 10-year contract. Plus, the military would likely be interested in enabling its soldiers to hold more guns or fight in hand-to-hand combat more effectively.

Society is certainly not ready for such extreme body modification yet, but it's not hard to imagine people asking for some very bizarre cosmetic or utilitarian augmentations once doctors start implanting 3D printed organs.

3D printing has already revolutionized several industries from toys to airlines, and that revolution is now about to come home. Along with all the clear economic and environmental benefits this technology will bring, it also presents some very challenging implications for how we look at shopping, security, health, and just about everything else.

While the ramifications of any new technology can never be fully gamed out ahead of time, it's time to get ready for the next wholesale technology shift that will upend our economy and reprint the basic order of our lives. As the technology improves and progresses, we might even see the shopaholics converge with hoarders, and we may then marvel at the tragic lives of the printerholics who live in a sandbox of 3D printed trinkets -- and just can't stop spending their days printing.

 

Dennis D. Draeger is a foresight researcher with AFR, and a freelance writer on technology and its social implications. Follow him at Ad Futura and at @dddraeger on Twitter.