Three-dimensional printing has been getting a considerable amount of media attention lately, particularly over the weekend, when a pair of tinkerers in the UK launched the world’s first “printed” plane.
If you haven’t heard of 3D printing, well, you’re going to hear an awful lot more about it because it’s a technology that is finally starting to mature. 3D printing has been around for at least 20 years, which is just about the right amount of time for people to figure out how to make a technology cheap and easy to use. For most of its early days, though, 3D printing was the exclusive domain of – surprise, surprise – the military and other large industrial concerns.
Basically, the process starts with a 3D computer image, which is then sliced into super-thin layers. The printer then sprays a corresponding super-thin layer of plastic for each slice, going from the bottom up. As the plastic hardens, voila – the 3D image is replicated into a physical 3D object.
Manufacturers have been using such printers for some time to create prototypes. Scientists, toy makers and cellphone designers have all benefited from being able to create their own prototypes in-house rather quickly. While the machines and ink have been expensive, manufacturers have found big savings by cutting the prototype process down to a few days, rather than weeks.
I first encountered 3D printing back in 2008 when I visited Brookhaven National Lab on Long Island, where scientists were using it to create parts for their various machines. Despite all the amazing physics work going on there, I was most fascinated by the printers since they seemed to be early versions of the replicators found on Star Trek, which could create any object out of thin air.
After my visit, I talked to some 3D printer makers and found that the technology was just about ready for home use. With the printers and ink coming down quickly in price, it was only going to be a few years until they were affordable for home tinkerers. That reality has arrived, if the guys who built the drone are any indicator.
3D printers are like to be everywhere in a few years. I’d bet on iPhone and Android apps popping up soon that will allow for the simple creation of 3D models. Hopefully, there will still be a large number of manufacturers to choose from so we can avoid the outrageous ink prices brought about by the traditional printing oligopoly.
As amazing as 3D printing and its promise of creating something out of nothing is, though, it’s only a stop-gap measure until the real fun arrives. Microscopic nanobots will ultimately evolve the replicator concept to another Star Trek toy, the Holodeck, where the virtual will become real. These versatile nanobots will be able to change shape, size, colour, texture and even emit light and sound, thereby having the ability to essentially become anything imaginable.
The idea, being developed by molecular engineer J. Storrs Hall, sounds like science-fiction but it’s already a reality. Utility nanobots can already be built, but they’re too big and expensive. Hall, who I spoke to last year, says this concept of “utility fog” will follow the trajectory of all technologies, including 3D printing. That means that 20 years from now, if not sooner, the term “virtual reality” will take on an entirely new meaning.