3D Printing – It’s history and future

If there is one thing that I am most excited about in the technology world it’s the leaps in progress in 3D printing. Not since the mobile phone has their been an items that can change our existence and standards of life so quickly. For those that don’t know what 3D printing is, think how a letter is printed with a single layer of ink, now replace that ink with a 1mm layer of plastic or better still chocolate, as it dries another layer is placed on top of it and the cycle continues until a real life 3D object is formed.

Now this technology has been around since the 1980’s, but like the evolution of all things took time to get to the point we are at today – where basic models are available in businesses and homes. That’s right was as little as a few hundred euro a company like Makerbot will sell you a fully working model and websites like Thingiverse will allow you to download the plans to create literally anything your mind can imagine.

At the moment the main drivers of the technology are the three human basic requirements:

1. Health
2. Food
3. Tools

From a heath perspective, 3D printing in the next 10 years will be able to print organs and within the next 3 to print replacement skin – something the huge military budgets just love the idea of as well as the unbelievable potential to extend lives and avoid the awful transplant waiting lists that exist worldwide.

It might sound a bit star-trek but if you think about the composition of food, it’s something a 3D printer could emulate. An end to starvation and on a commercial side dieting – delicious foods without the parts that cause obesity epidemic the western world is facing.

As a species we’ve separated ourselves by our creation and use of tools to better our standards of life. In a talk I gave to an EU committee and policy makers in Brussels, I was discussing the legislative nature required to react to this advent of 3D printing – a concept the majority of the room were unfamiliar with. As you can imagine telling a group of people they had to create rules and laws about the handling of a concept that was as limitless as this wasn’t ever going to be received easily.

The truth remains though that 3D printing is the advent of making complexity almost free, in a decade we will have machines that will build houses and hotels, including all their fittings, in a tiny fraction of the time and cost that it would have taken before. By the line of code the machine will change from adding concrete to make the wall to putting in a copper pipeline alternative for plumbing and a nice wood resin finish to cover it all up. That’s right while we continue to educate children to be white and blue collar workers we are simultaneously replacing some of these jobs with a machine that never sleeps and if it breaks down – can print it’s own replacement parts.


Video with thanks to the folks at 16×9

With all breakthroughs in technology comes dangers though, the creepy serial killer-esq looking “Cody” (10 mins into the video) is using this technology to develop the blueprints to allow anyone to create a weapon at the click of the button. This isn’t a what if or some day scenario, this technology and blue prints are available now (just not widely available yet).

On a more positive note I have a friend who has set up a new business printing medical parts which will have a profound impact on heath care and patient recovery time after operations. It’s truly fascinating and ground breaking stuff, I’m delighted that Ireland will have such an impact on the world this way and always look forward to hearing about their latest break throughs – some day I’ll share these with you but at the moment I’m not certain what is public knowledge or not.

So what now? Well we need to be proactive. All children would be taught about this technology in school and start learning the basic skills needed to adapt to this new reality. CAD and designing skills will be far more beneficial to them than woodwork classes or academic business models from twenty years ago. With any shift in technology there is massive potential for business opportunity – but will you be proactive or reactive?

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