(And I enjoyed Bruce Sterling’s reaction to Bass’s piece, so I wanted to share it here as well: “*It’s quite interesting, although whenever industry insiders write opinion columns, it’s always everybody else’s company that is (a) overhyped and/or (b) holding things back.”)
From a major VC firm’s recent $30 million investment in the industrial-grade 3-D printing space to the news that Staples will become the first major U.S. retailer to sell consumer-friendly 3-D printers, it’s clear that 3-D printing has reached its inflection point.
And perhaps its hype point, too.
The technology is decades old, but now there’s an ecosystem in place (which includes my own company) that moves it beyond the maker edges to mainstream center. So now more than ever I’m asked for an insider’s view on the hype vs. realities of 3-D printing — and where it’s going.
3-D printing won’t replace other manufacturing technology
3-D printing is indeed an important fabrication technology, because it has the marvelous ability to make anything regardless of the complexity of the form. Other fabrication techniques, honed over decades of industrialization, struggle with geometric complexity — where 3-D printers can print either the most intricate shapes or simplest cube with equal ease.
The fact is that 3-D printing is really, still, an immature technology.
Never before have we had a technology where we can so freely translate our ideas into a tangible object with little regard to the machinery or skills available. Yet just as the microwave didn’t replace all other forms of cooking as initially predicted, 3-D printing will not replace other manufacturing technologies let alone industrial-scale ones for a variety of reasons. It will complement them.
The fact is that 3-D printing is really, still, an immature technology. We’ve built a magical aura around it — sci-fi style replicator! — but as soon as anyone actually uses a 3-D printer for any period of time, they immediately wish for faster build times, higher quality prints, larger build envelopes, better and cheaper materials … and so on….
…These are the important research directions
With so much buzz around every latest announcement in the 3-D printing space, it’s hard to tell what’s commonplace and what’s really interesting to pay attention to. Because constant improvements are happening in everything and especially in what you can print — whether replacement part or novel design, inert or organic material, at scales from the microscopic to a house, on earth or in space.
I think two important areas to watch here are printing electronics — i.e., not just objects but logic and function — and the burgeoning field of bioprinting. The latter represents some of the most exciting work employing 3-D printers. For example, Dr. Anthony Atala of Wake Forest University has pioneered work that includes the successful printing and implantation of human urethras. San Diego-based Organovo prints functional human tissue that can be used for medical research and therapeutic applications. And companies like Craig Venter’s as well as Cambrian Genomics (which I have a small personal investment in) are printing DNA — yes, DNA! — one base pair at a time.
Another important direction in the 3-D printing landscape involves the shift to architectural-scale 3-D printing. Examples include the work of Ron Rael at U.C. Berkeley, who has been working with new, low-cost organic materials and the work of Boris Behrokh Khoshnevis at the University of Southern California who has been experimenting with 3-D printing full-size buildings.
The European Space Agency and Foster + Partners have teamed up to design a moonbase structure 3-D printed with Monolite UK’s D-Shape, though the beauty of their concept is that it would draw entirely on materials found on the moon. This is important since it helps push the materials limitations of 3-D printing from what is supplied to what is found. And someone out there has already hacked a 3-D printer to use only waste materials — imagine the possibilities of using 3-D printing for true recycling and reuse….
Every Thursday is #3dthursday here at Adafruit! The DIY 3D printing community has passion and dedication for making solid objects from digital models. Recently, we have noticed electronics projects integrated with 3D printed enclosures, brackets, and sculptures, so each Thursday we celebrate and highlight these bold pioneers!
Have you considered building a 3D project around an Arduino or other microcontroller? How about printing a bracket to mount your Raspberry Pi to the back of your HD monitor? And don’t forget the countless LED projects that are possible when you are modeling your projects in 3D!
The Adafruit Learning System has dozens of great tools to get you well on your way to creating incredible works of engineering, interactive art, and design with your 3D printer! If you’ve made a cool project that combines 3D printing and electronics, be sure to let us know, and we’ll feature it here!
Have an amazing project to share? Join the SHOW-AND-TELL every Wednesday night at 7:30pm ET on Google+ Hangouts.
Join us every Wednesday night at 8pm ET for Ask an Engineer!
Learn resistor values with Mho’s Resistance or get the best electronics calculator for engineers “Circuit Playground” – Adafruit’s Apps!
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