by: Michael Shields
3D printing is on the verge of changing the world, but the verdict is still out if this is indeed a good thing….
The game is changing. We are on the verge of something special.
When I first heard about the existence of 3D printing, and how far the technology had ventured, it took me a few minutes to retrieve my jaw from the ground and jostle it back into position before I could genuinely ask….”Really?” I wasn’t aware of the advances, that we were are at a point in time where literally every week there is an exciting improvement in this technology. And that this idea, seemingly ripped from the pages of a sci-fi novel, is becoming a reality.
3D printing, also known as ‘Additive Manufacturing’, in the simplest of terms1, is the process of making three-dimensional solid objects from a digital model created on a computer. The virtual computer blueprints you create must be sliced into digital cross-sections, which the printer will then read and lay down successive layers of liquid, powder, paper, sheet material, etc. that are automatically fused together to build the model from a series of cross sections.
Using this method it is theoretically possible to create almost any shape or geometric feature. Think about that for a moment. Many experts predict that within the decade a 3D printer will be commonplace. Yes, the technology not only exists but is gradually becoming affordable. Some rudimentary 3D printers can be purchased for as little as $1,000 and the price of the more sophisticated models are dropping daily. MAKERBOT, a leader in the retail sale of 3D printers, already has a retail store in Manhattan. Things are happening. This is real.
The possibilities with 3D printing are literally endless, particularly in the field of medicine. Imagine a world without transplant waiting lists; one where when we are hurt, we could simply print the tissue, organ (lungs, kidneys, etc.), or even the appendage that was afflicted and replace it. We are not there….yet. But where we are currently is very impressive.
Recently, scientists at Oxford University have demonstrated that they can create materials with several of the properties of living tissues using a custom-built 3D printer. This new type of material consists of thousands of connected water droplets, encapsulated within lipid films, which can perform some of the functions of the cells inside our bodies.
These ingenious Oxford scientists have created networks of tens of thousands of connected droplets. The droplets can be printed with protein pores to form pathways through the network that mimic nerves, and are able to transmit electrical signals from one side of a network to the other.
The goal, at this point – one they are on the verge of accomplishing – is to develop materials that could be used to graft onto organs to replace damaged parts, employed as scaffolding on which to grow more cells, or they could be inserted into the body to release medication at given times, in certain spots, with specific triggers.
This is the future so many of us believe we were promised. When George, Jane, Judy, or Elroy sauntered across their loft in the skies and pressed a button on the wall that made a hamburger appear before them – this was additive manufacturing. Every time Jean Luc Picard asked his computer for…”tea…earl grey….hot” he was ordering from a machine whose lineage hails from the type of 3D printers available today. It is not unimaginable to think of a day when we will be printing everything we necessitate and desire. Down the road an advanced version of these printers could be in every home, as common as a microwave or a refrigerator are today (and both items obsolete due to the printer of course). We will be printing everything. If something breaks – just print another one. The limits of these machines creations will only be restrained by our own creativity. This is remarkable. This is beyond exciting.
And this is completely terrifying as well.
A future ripe with printers capable of these wizardly abilities is not one without controversy. It is impossible to believe that this sort of technology will be easy to control, or that it will always be used for good.
A man named Cody R Wilson, a 25-year-old University of Texas Law student, has figured out how to make semi-automatic weapons2 from the comfort of his own bedroom. He is at the forefront of a movement advocating for the right to self-manufacture untraceable firearms with 3D technology. His company, Defense Distributed, is “the home of the Wiki-Weapon project. A nonprofit effort to create freely available plans for 3D printable guns”, and while being a strong advocate for civil liberties and freedom in many ways, he is the face of this dangerous movement3.
Wilson doesn’t hide behind the second amendment like many firearm advocates. His take is much more radical. He believes all people should have the right to have access to this type of technology because “they simply should.” He believes in ultimate freedom. He will argue against gun control (Why does someone need an ammunition clip with more than 30 rounds?) with questions like….”Why does anyone need 2 houses?, Why does anyone need to make more than $400,000?”
His reasoning behind his actions are arrogance and boldness in their most frightening of forms. He appears to be a kid looking simply for attention as much as a true advocate for firearm freedoms. His actions, and goals – such as creating weapon design files for 3D printable “wiki-weapons” and sharing them freely over the Internet – are intentionally disruptive. As Nick Bilton, a writer from the New York Times who first brought Cody into the National spotlight with a well-researched article that acted as our initial warning on the topic, described him as “the canary in the coalmine showing us what our future might be.” Nick pointed out that “it won’t be long before a felon or a teenager is able to print a gun at home in their bedroom.”
If 3D guns are readily available to all, we could be conceivably be living in a world with no background checks, no age limits, no serial numbers etched on the barrel, and no sales receipts to track the gun…..making the current debate about gun control look like a giant group hug.
It will be decades, centuries even, before we know if technology will save the world or become its undoing. But we are not too far from finding out if 3D printing will save more lives than it takes. Technology will always move much quicker than any regulatory action enacted to control the repercussions, thus we are left to merely hope that the good will outweigh the bad, But we must keep one very important thing in mind: although this technology allows us to replicate countless items – it will never have the ability to replace a human life.
- “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.” – Albert Einstein [↩]
- Essentially – Mr. Wilson successfully shot nearly 30 rounds from a 3-D printed gun part before it broke under the heat on video recently. [↩]
- Vice recently put together an impressive short documentary on Cody Wilson and 3D guns, well worth a look. [↩]