Manufacturing Comes Home

It may come as a surprise to some that 3-D printing is a 30-year-old technology which is now beginning to emerge on the consumer marketplace. The first thing printed was a teacup in 1983. Today printed parts have found their way into Formula One race cars; fighter jets such as The F-35; custom prosthetics; and now thanks to consumer grade printers, consumer products. Sites such as Cubify.com and store.makerbot.com will sell you a 3-D printer which you can use objects using patterns that you might find – for free – on a site called thingiverse.com.

And this is just the beginning; people are beginning to think outside the box with this stuff. 3-D printing has even made it to Hollywood! Last year over 40,000 printed faces were used to make the stop-motion, animated film ParaNorman. 3-D printing is based upon this idea of “additive” versus “subtractive” manufacturing, where things are made by adding material layer by layer instead of taking it away from a chunk of raw material. There are some great implications for this technology in terms of cost and waste; things will be cheaper to make or get, less materials and energy will be wasted in in the manufacturing process, and people will at least appear to be better off because they will be able to have more things.

Personally, I’m pretty excited about this! I can’t wait until these printers become so affordable that I can have one on my desktop, and I can start messing around with printing things. What would I print? Well for starters, I would print surfboard-shaped coat hooks, and maybe a tiki-shaped door knocker for my cabana door. Of course, that’s just stuff right off the top of my head; If I really sat down to think about it, I could dream up all kinds of crazy stuff.

My real question here, is this: could it be considered wasteful to print parts for an animated film? The parts could be sold off afterward as keepsakes, but that relegates them to the category of memorabilic tchotchkes such that someday perhaps more than 75% of us will own something that was printed specifically for a movie, something that had a useful life measured in seconds – is that waste? Does that point to the frivolity of modern life?

Also, what happens if 3-D printing makes “things” so cheap that nobody can make any profit from desktop manufacturing – will we all go broke as the population outpaces employment and the cost of food goes up? Leave your comments below.

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