It’s been called a “game changer,” a “world changer” and a “life changer.” It’s predicted to disrupt everything from medicine to manufacturing to military strategy. It’s being used to create guns and gold jewelry, houses and human hearts. Three-D printing has evolved in the past few years from an obscure industrial process to an exemplar of digital-age innovation — with all the thrilling potential, lurid hype and amorphous menace that goes with it.
Three-dimensional printers spray thin strips of molten plastic, metal or some more exotic material through a specialized nozzle, forming layers that accumulate into an object described by a digital design file. Manufacturers see the technology’s potential to shorten supply chains, accelerate production, and create lighter and more complex parts, with replacements printable on demand. The U.S. government is investing in 3-D printing for use in energy research, defense and space exploration. Although home versions — desktop varieties now cost as little as $300 — still tend to be slow and hard to use, their appeal to hobbyists and tinkerers has surged, leading to a small flowering of entrepreneurs. The hype has often overtaken the reality. Even so, everything from from cars to bionic ears have already been printed. In 2013, the market expanded by 34.9 percent, the biggest increase in almost two decades. And the global industry will more than quadruple to about $12.5 billion by 2018, according to an estimate by Wohlers Associates, a consultant.
The technology behind 3-D printing was developed roughly 30 years ago by Chuck Hull, the founder of 3D Systems. The technique has long been used for rapid prototyping. What’s new is that cheaper materials and better software have awakened new industries to its potential. Think of hearing aids, which once required skilled laborers and took more than a week to manufacture; using 3-D printing, a customized shell can be produced in less than a day. The same goes for prosthetics and dentistry. Scientists are even experimenting with printing living tissue by layering human cells in precise formation into a petri dish; one day, they hope to print functional hearts and livers. Entrepreneurs are using the technology to sell all manner of cheap gadgets and gizmos online, from personalized phone cases to spare parts to your choice of drone enhancements. It’s also proving useful in soothing some of life’s banal irritations; imagine a world without runny ketchup. And it’s valuable for highly specialized machine parts: General Electric is using the printers to make fuel nozzles for jet engines, while NASA hopes to equip astronauts with them to make replacement parts in orbit. As sensor technologies evolve, embedding chips and circuits in 3-D printed material could allow for “smart objects” — able to sense their own temperature, humidity, acceleration and so forth — with expansive new possibilities.
A machine that can stamp out a fuel nozzle can also print a gun. Three-D printers have also produced handcuff keys, cash-machine skimmers and other worrisome implements. Maybe they could be used to manufacture drugs, chemical weapons or black-market organs. Hacking could become an omnipresent threat. Copyright and patent infringements will probably proliferate. Likewise counterfeiting. Some export controls could become harder to enforce. And as with other species of automation, many worry that 3-D printers could one day throw a lot of humans out of work. Finally, errant legislative or regulatory responses to all of the above could lead to plenty of unintended and unknowable consequences. Caution is in order: The dangers of 3-D printing are just as liable to exaggeration as the putative benefits.
The Reference Shelf
- Bloomberg View published a series of editorials on 3-D printing last year. (Here are parts one, two, three and four.)
- Here’s a primer on how the technology could affect intellectual property. And one on why the military may be interested in it.
- Read studies from the McKinsey Global Institute, the Atlantic Council, the National Defense University and the Computer Sciences Corporation.