The Undiscovered Country – An Introduction to 3D Printing

Paul mentioned that “there can’t be a widespread 3D printing revolution until it is dead simple to print.” Nick Bilton on his NYTimes blog yesterday writes that the arrival of that revolution is closer than we think. Moreover:

“When it costs you the same amount of manufacturing effort to make advanced robotic parts as it does to manufacture a paperweight, that really changes things in a profound way,” Dr. Lipson said.

What things change exactly?

It has the potential to reduce manufacturing costs significantly, eliminate the need to ship products, and gets us steps closer to shouting “Tea, Earl Grey, Hot.” at our kitchen replicator.

We launched this site blazing into the intellectual property issues surrounding 3D printing without first going into what it is and why it’s such an exciting “new” field. So let’s tackle that right now. Going to first principles (read: Wikipedia) the definition of 3D printing is “a process of making a three-dimensional solid object of virtually any shape from a digital model.”

3D printing has been around for several decades although it was primarily used by companies and researchers to rapidly prototype their products. One-off designs could be manufactured inexpensively for testing before a final version was sent for mass production. The reason the buzz is growing now though is as a result of scaled down home editions of 3D printers. For example, the company Makerbot produces a device called the Replicator 2 which brings high precision manufacturing capabilities to your desktop. Right now limitations in the printers and raw materials means that most devices will print nearly any object you want as long as it’s a solid chunk of plastic.

Missing an Ikea piece? Print it. Want connect your Legos to your Duplos? Print it. Need to build a base on the moon? Print it! That last one really does encapsulate the incredible potential of 3D printing. Washington State University researchers found that they could print 3D objects using simulated lunar soil as the raw material. The European Space Agency takes this one step further by suggesting a lunar base could be constructed in a similar manner.

So why do I call 3D printing the “undiscovered country?” Because it’s the future, it’s exciting, and it’s coming to a home near you (and I like Star Trek VI).


Since this is a primer, here are a couple of resources that are worth checking out:

There’s a good, recent article + short accompanying video on the The Toronto Star from February 15, 2013.  The video briefly explains how 3D printing works and how to create moving part by having a printed spacer that dissolves away.  Will 3D printing revolutionize the way we live?
(Note that the Earl Grey joke is a very common first thought for anyone who likes Star Trek + 3D Printing)

The 7 best TED talks on 3D Printing [via] including this embedded one by Lisa Harouni entitled “A Primer on 3D Printing