Are replicators almost a reality?
So now to take a 180 degree detour from the hotel reviews of the last few posts and get back to writing about the ideas I have been eavesdropping in on.
The concept of 3D printing has popped up in more than a few conversations over the last 2-3 weeks, I thought I might explore the topic here in some detail (or at least a little more detail than one fit in a tweet, or a concept pitch…)
Just to be clear, 3D printing is the creation of 3D objects using a material printer. You basically create a detailed product design, send this design to the device and then it builds the object, layer by layer, from the ground up.
Still not clear on what I mean? For a full explanation on 3D printers, watch the amazing TED talk video below.
Now, I realize I am little slow on the draw here. 3D printers have been around since at least the late-1980s and are used already today in a number of industries. But until now, the process had required a huge machine, experts to work it, and a large-scale financial investment, upward of hundreds of thousands of dollars. But, as is often the case, the price has dropped and the technology has improved over the last few years. So it is no surprise that at this year’s CES, 3D printers were finally introduced for the home market.
What may not be so obvious, however, is the coming shakeup that this technology is likely to cause, especially in the domain of product manufacturing. Why go to the store to buy a new bike pedal/coffee mug/lampshade/sunglasses/hair clip, when you can download the design and print it in a couple of hours? Manufacturing, at least in some industries, is about to face a major overhaul.
Our attitude towards products, product design, materials, trends, consumption – not to mention copyright, patents, and intellectual property will likely be challenged in dramatic ways due to the introduction of this disruptive tech. For more, have a look at Micheal Weinberg’s great analysis of IP & 3D printing: “It Will Be Awesome if They Don’t Screw it Up: 3D Printing, Intellectual Property, and the Fight Over the Next Great Disruptive Technology”
While 3D printing seems kinda wonderful, it will also mean more useless plastic crap will be produced. It could mean more consumption, which is the last thing we need right now. All this plastic will just end up floating around in our oceans, like all the other junk we use for a while and then throw away. But still the technology has amazing potential. I would love to see a green version of these printers, one that uses disposable organic material instead of plastic as its main material. Or one that could use older products as raw material for new ones. Recycling directly in your house! One can only hope.
I can imagine this technology will spawn a new wave of DYI product, fashion and creative design. New materials, new shapes, new patterns to be developed and experimented with. Have a look at these examples. Industrial product design and proto-type manufacturing will be done from anywhere, on a much smaller budget than before. This opens the doors to amateur inventors or designers.
So it begs the question, are true Star Trek-style replicators just on the horizon?