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The Implications of 3D Printing

by Mary Gehl


The remarkable possibility of widespread domestic use of 3D technology has tremendous potential to change the way in which goods are obtained, designed, and innovated.

Imagine the ability to create your own aspirin or your own antacid tablet at home whenever you needed one. It sounds like a great opportunity to avoid those midnight trips to the 24-hour pharmacy. Now, imagine that technology in the hands of those who would love to create their own pharmekia empire. The growing popularity of 3D printing may make that scenario a reality in the near future.

How It Started

3D printing is not a new idea. It was actually patented in the late 1970s. 3D printing is the process of making three-dimensional solid objects from a digital file. This is accomplished using additive processes in which an object is created by laying down successive layers of material. It differs from traditional subtractive processes (machining techniques) in which material is removed by drilling or cutting.

The additive process requires less raw material and, because software drives 3D printers, each item can be made differently without costly retooling. Engineers and designers have utilized 3D printers for more than a decade to make prototypes quickly and cheaply before embarking on the expensive business of retooling a factory to produce the “real thing.”

Since 2003, the cost of the materials printers used in 3D printing have decreased significantly, causing the technology to expand into other areas, including jewelry, footwear, industrial design, architecture, engineering and construction (AEC), automotive, aerospace, dental and medical industries, education, geographic information systems, civil engineering, and other fields.

The remarkable possibility of widespread domestic use of this technology has tremendous potential to change the way in which goods are obtained, designed, and innovated. Analysts believe the explosion of 3D printing from the workplace into the home will be far faster than it was for 2D printing technologies.

Terry Wohlers, of Wohlers Associates, has been studying additive manufacturing (AM) and 3D printing for two decades. According to Mr. Wohlers:

Low-cost 3D printers affect both the professional and consumer markets. The increased sale of these machines over the past few years has taken additive manufacturing (AM) mainstream more than any other single development. 3D printers have helped spread the technology and made it more accessible to students, researchers, do-it-yourself enthusiasts, hobbyists, inventors, and entrepreneurs.

The 3D printing and additive manufacturing industry is expected to reach $3.1 billion by 2016 and $5.2 billion by 2020.

Implications

There are many economic, legal, and sociological implications of the wide-spread dissemination of 3D printers into domestic settings. Technological developments have the potential to influence an entire industry, such as the effect of digital formats within the music industry.

Economically, there is a potential for a similar effect as individuals gain the ability to print objects. This change in the market for tangible goods may change the prevalent economic models of consumerism as the focus shifts from the manufacturing of goods towards a more knowledge-based economy with a high value assigned to 3D blueprints.

Additionally, the economic trend of mass customization is quickly becoming a reality. The new model of innovation and prototyping products will be continually and iteratively refined—designs may never reach a state of being completed or finalized.

The economic trends imply associated legal anomalies. Intellectual Property (IP) law is split into four key areas: copyright, design protection, patents, and trademarks. All areas can be easily infringed upon by 3D printing.

However, it is not just the impending legal issues that have social scientists and analysts concerned. The first half of the 20th century in advanced economies has been described as a social system focused around the large-scale consumerism and mass production of standardized products. This model depends on the majority of workers being paid enough to afford the consumer goods generated by economics of scale.

This has given way in the 21st century to a paradigm characterized by small-batch production, economies of scope, specialized products, new information technologies, reliance on service jobs, and an emphasis on types of consumers rather than on social class.

3D printers may, through an increased level of flexibility, reconfigure many of our contemporary social and economic relationships on a global basis.

Prosumerism

While the technology of 3D printing is brilliant, the implications of this technology in the hands of the masses are endless. In fact, the sociological implications resulted in the coining of a new word—prosumerism—a shift from our consumer focus into a world where production and consumption are continuous and symbiotic. This will mean instant gratification in a society already leaning toward the fulfillment of self.

Of specific concern is the work of a team of researchers led by chemist Lee Cronin at the University of Glasgow, UK. Using a digital blueprint and a 3D printer costing $2,000, the team has engineered a selection of chemicals.

According to Richard Jones, a nanotechnologist at the University of Sheffield, UK, “This method is a welcome departure from the tools currently available to chemists who have been doing their business pretty much unchanged since the alchemists.”

Mr. Cronin agrees and emphasizes that the team’s method “fundamentally changes the way chemistry is done.”

The typical laboratory test tubes, flasks, and beakers are no longer passive players—they have become active agents. The chemical reactions depend upon the starting ingredients, their ratios, and the speed with which they are mixed.

The team discovered that they could use a common bathroom sealant as the primary material for printing reaction chambers of all shapes and sizes, as well as connection tubes of varying lengths. Once hard, the 3D printer squirts in the reactants, or “chemical inks.” Reactions can be altered by changing the size of the reaction chambers and the distances the inks have to travel to reach them. If a reaction does not work as intended, the shape of the reactor can be changed without changing the chemical reagents. Mr. Cronin emphasizes,

This geometric control allows the intricate details of a reaction to be varied systematically in new ways, which might result in totally new compounds.

In principle, the dimensions of the equipment and chemical ingredients required to produce a particular pharmaceutical product can all be predesigned and embedded in the same software blueprint. All a user needs to do is download it and feed it to a printer.

The most immediate application of the team’s discovery is to existing chemists. However, by providing new ways to discover chemical compounds, the technology could one day turn anyone with a 3D printer and an Internet connection into a chemist. In the spirit of altruism, Mr. Cronin says, “It’s a way of democratizing chemistry, bring chemistry to the masses.” People in the far-reaching global community can make their own headache pills or detergent. These techniques may also allow people to print and share recipes for niche substances that chemical or pharmaceutical companies will not make because the customer base is not profitable.

Projects currently exist to distribute 3D printers to the developing countries to enable them to make things such as bicycle parts and other economical items. Even in countries where there is no access to the most basic drugs and cleaning products, cell phones, the Internet, and 3D printers will be available. These technological foundations will set in motion the future of prosumerism in the chemical world. As Mr. Cronin elaborates,

…most drugs and detergents are made of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen, also the components of readily available substances such as corn syrup, glycerol, and paraffin.

The team is currently working on a kit to print ibuprofen. They are excited about the possibilities that non-chemists in the developed world will use the technology to buy and share recipes directly from chemists and develop substances that a company has not yet developed or commercialized.

Almost as an afterthought, the team acknowledged that such freedoms will also bring challenges. These challenges include ensuring the substances are made safely, and dealing with the black markets that “might” offer prescription-only or illegal drugs.

This possibility was quickly waived away as the researchers describe their vision of an online store where an app for a particular drug can be downloaded to a personal 3D printer and a standard set of chemical inks can be ordered. In their vision, the potential health dangers from allowing people to print their own legal or illegal drugs would be minimized as the team would only write software for specific end-products that would be difficult to modify into other reactions.

The Future of 3D Printing

Some of us have experienced the wonders of 3D printing at the dentist’s office. The digital technology creates a 3D image of patients’ teeth, eliminating the need for uncomfortable molds. As a hand-held scanner takes three-dimensional images of a patient’s damaged and surrounding teeth, the images are displayed on a screen.

The image is then sent to a 3D printer outfitted with the compounds necessary to build a crown or bridge implant. Once the product is “baked” and cooled, it is ready for fitting. This “digital dentistry” creates near-perfect impressions that almost eliminate the need for refitting. Many dental offices can now do all steps while the patient waits.

This technology is now expanding into other areas as well. Biotechnology and academic institutions are now studying 3D printing technology. They are reviewing the possible use of the technology in tissue engineering applications, where organs and various body parts are built using inkjet techniques.

Layers of living cells are deposited onto a gel medium and slowly built up to form three dimensional structures. 3D printing can produce a personalized hip replacement in one pass, with the ball permanently inside the socket. Even at the current printing resolutions the unit will not require polishing.

Several terms have been used to refer to this field of research: organ printing, bio-printing, and computer-aided tissue engineering. U.S. researchers at Cornell University have engineered an ear made of silicone.

Additionally, Hod Lipson, the director of the Computational Syntheses Laboratory at the university, has been testing the 3D printer as a means of producing synthetic heart valves. Hopes are high of using a 3D printer to produce functional human body parts.

Indeed, 3D printing technology is here and it is disrupting every field it touches.


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