• The Good, the Bad & the Ugly of 3D Printing

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The Good, the Bad & the Ugly of 3D Printing

Sep 15 2014

3D printing is the breakthrough new technology that allows anyone with access to a 3D printer and the internet to summon pretty much any object they want into existence. There are restrictions of course, such as size constraints, but the possibilities are incredible.

The technology works by using digital modelling software to create a customisable design for an object, dividing the design into cross-sections and then literally “printing” the separate layers on top of each other. Such a method of manufacturing is revolutionary in that it is “additive” instead of being “subtractive”. Here, pieces are painstakingly added together, instead of taking away parts from a solid block to achieve the specified design, as with traditional manufacturing. To learn more about the specifics of the process, read this article: How Does 3D Printing Work?

Such a startling and ground-breaking innovation is virtually limitless in its possibilities. However, there are negative aspects too. By examining three potential examples of the deployment of 3D printing, this article aims to examine the pros and cons of the practice:

The Good

3D printing has many advantages, including faster manufacturing speed and lower costs after the initial outlay. However, perhaps the biggest advantage they offer is the customisability of the product. Computer software will allow the user to individually design the solid object they require, right down to minute specificities.

One 3D printing example that embodies this advantage can be seen in the development of shark-like skin. By replicating the tiny teeth which adorn a shark’s body and help it to swim, otherwise known as “denticles”, scientists have demonstrated an important advance in energy efficiency and speed increase. Using the artificial skin on a 3D-printed paddle, the study showed that the skin could provide a boost of 6.6% in speed while using 5.9% less energy, which, over long distances, could be hugely important.

The possibilities of this customisable technology could also be crucial in the role of medicine and surgery. Doctors will potentially be able to manufacture tailor-made body parts or organs, directly from replica human DNA, which would bypass the problem of donor rejection.

The Bad

If, as predicted, 3D printing becomes commercially viable on a widespread scale, it won’t be long before every household has one. Imagine the possibility of custom-designing your own clothes, shoes and household furnishings - they would be virtually limitless. Because of this, the industries which currently provide these services (textiles, retail, construction, etc.) will all suffer and could potentially even disappear altogether someday.

Indeed, so far-reaching is the potential of 3D printing that Thomas Frey, a prominent thinker and speaker in the fields of economy, industry and society, predicted in 2012 that two billion jobs would disappear by 2030. This figure, which accounts for nearly half of all of the current jobs in today’s world, would drastically alter the way in which we view industry and the workplace if it comes to fruition. Though 3D printing would of course not be the sole factor in such an occurrence, it would certainly play an important role.

The Ugly

Perhaps the most obvious drawback of 3D printing is the freedom it allows for the user to create anything they want – good or bad. Last year, the world's first 3D gun was printed by controversial American group Defense Distributed, who have plans to publish the blueprints online.

The firearm was manufactured on a printer which cost its builder $8,000 – and in future, those who wish to manufacture their own will probably be able to do so at a much reduced price, due to the diminishing costs of the printer. Even more worryingly, they will not have to apply for a gun license, making gun control virtually impossible.

Aside from the manufacture of firearms and other weapons, the device could theoretically be used to create counterfeit money as well, which could cause no end of problems for the world’s economy.

But what about you?

If you had a 3D printer, what would you produce? Let us know in the comments.

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