3-D printing is about to open up a whole new world to consumers, but are we ready for it?
Remember the replicators on Star Trek? Whether it was a steak dinner, Romulan ale or a new Starfleet jumper – you just told one what you wanted and the object of your desire magically appeared, as long as its molecular structure was on file in the ship’s computers.
While replicators worked by rearranging the abundant subatomic particles to form molecules and arrange those molecules to form the object. A 3-D printer builds solid objects from a digital blueprint by using a laser to create a layer of material from a design (usually out of plastic, metal or even liquid in some cases) and then fusing it to another layer until the object is complete. That is kind of what 3-D printing is like, only we don’t have to wait until the 24th century to experience the more realistic, if less fantastic, version also known as additive manufacturing.
Following its invention in 1984 by Charles Hull, 3-D printing was confined mostly to being used for industrial research purposes, such as building models and prototype parts rapidly using three-dimensional computer aided design data.
Expensive – commercial machines can cost six figures or more – requiring the use of bulky machinery and limited by the materials that it could print, 3-D printing was more of an interesting curiosity early on.
Today, however, the machines have been miniaturized, modernized and made accessible to the public. They are utilized in the clothing industry, auto production and even by the U.S. Military – printing everything from shoes to prosthetics to jet engine parts. A team at Cornell University has even put together a food printer, you can download the blueprints for online and assemble yourself (meals and the printer).
In other words, we’re not quite there yet but within your lifetime and or that of your descendants you may be able to buy an outfit, meal and a drink online and print them all up from your computer. Sounds good right? That’s not even the best part. Imagine hospitals with the ability to print their own prosthetic limbs for patients, doctors in far-flung places able to print up medicine and never going to the garage again to pick up your car only to hear from your auto mechanic, “that he’s still waiting on a part.”
With every great discovery or invention comes a potential for misuse, and questions are already being raised over the potential dark side of 3-D printing.
For one thing it could theoretically make anyone with the hardware, technical knowhow and materials a weapons dealer.
Amateur gunsmith Michael Guslick has already successfully tested a working partially printed AR-15 rifle. Now second-year University of Texas School of Law student Cody Wilson and his group Defense Distribution is trying to become the first distributor of freely available digital designs end users can use to print their own handguns.
Wilson’s project suffered a bump in the road when Stratasys, the company it leased a 3-D printer from in September after raising $20,000 online to fund the project and build the first fully printed 3-D pistol, seized its machine back last month after learning the group’s intent.
That hasn’t compelled Wilson, a self-described Libertarian to give up, his group plans to form a limited liability corporation to get a gun manufacturing license required by the federal government and it already has digital blueprints for several models that are ready for testing.
Whether or not they will be successful is yet to be determined. The one thing that is certain is that as this technology continues its rapid development more situations like this will arise – especially since 3-D printing recently added the ability to print biological material (tissue, blood vessels, etc.) to the fold.