You may be sitting in your home, in a big cushy recliner, holding a glass of
red wine, and staring intently at your normal printer. Quietly swirling your
drink, the only light illuminating this piece of technology that may not
make it through the year with the predominance of electronic documents.
Well, I can’t help you make that call, but soon that old fashion printer may
have a new companion in the coming years. Over the years people have been
turning more and more to a new type of printing, and for things more useful
than a piece of paper. 3D printing, or Additive Manufacturing, is becoming
easier for the average person to utilize, and someday soon, even own
themselves. While commonplace in the manufacturing world, the consumer end
of the 3D printer is just coming into the spot light. The Economist
mentioned that it could have effects similar to that of the steam engine or
the printing press, but we are on the verge of seeing these changes
Let’s start with how 3D printing works. Using a 3D printer, which can vary
in size and available mediums, it puts down a layer of medium like your
normal printer does. But after it completes this first layer, it then kicks
it up a notch and does it all over again. Eventually these layers create
nearly ANY object that people can imagine. But what does a 3D printer
actually use? These printers can hold anything from metals for big
manufacturers to plastics, paper, and ceramics. And of course people are
developing new “inks” for different 3D printers all the time.
The strangest “ink” possibly is a 3D printer that can be used to print meat.
Using something called “cultured cell media”, it can essentially print out
that porterhouse you were wanting. This technology was adapted from 3D
printers that were meant to create new organs for patients in hospitals
instead of having to wait for a donor. 3D printers are even being used in
drug research, creating new synthetic substances that can be made on the
cheap and later be determined useful or not.
So with all these different types of 3D printers out there, how does this
affect you? In recent years house hold units have become available, some
even for less than the price of the newest iPad. Home models print using a
quick curing plastic, and are great for knick-knacks and maybe even some
useful tools. Imagine printing out a trowel for pennies on the dollar
compared to running out to a hardware store. In fact, just about any doodad
needed can be produced through the use of simple software so you can create
it yourself. If buying the entire kit seems a bit daunting, you can go to
companies that will print anything your heart desires, and have it shipped
to you. Look for 3D printing services, such as ShapeWays.com and send them a
sketch of what you want. Days later a real product shows up on your
doorstep. The most recent news is that the first 3D printing store just
opened in New York City. Just walk in and print something for yourself.
But what if you aren’t the creative type, and you have no inclination to
actually creating anything. Enter a website that is mostly associated with
illegal activity. The Pirate Bay is a torrent website that many associate
with bootleg movies and poor quality music, but also has become a place for
designers to share their ideas. Users are uploading the already rendered
plans for items, making your 3D printer able to make anything that catches
your eye in the gallery. Along with other websites that will do it for a fee
if there is something that catches your eye, there are no end to the useless
things with which you can clutter your desk. There was even a contest
hosted by Defense Distributed for plans that would print a real working
firearm. While not advocated, I think it helps paint the picture of how
revolutionary these printers may become.
Currently, 3D printers are for researchers, manufacturers, and hobbyists.
But it is only a matter of time until they become household appliances that
will cozy up beside your current printer, your computer, or your television.
But this appliance will eventually have the ability to print out all of
those things, and so much more.
Craig Crossman is a national newspaper columnist writing about computers and
technology. He also hosts the number one daily national computer radio talk
show, Computer America. Listen at www.computeramerica.com. E-mail him at