What Lies Ahead for 3-D Printing?

The new technology promises a factory in every home—and a whole lot more

The Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine prints ear, nose and bone scaffolds that can be coated with cells to grow body parts. (Laurie Rubin)
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“Once a shape is in a usable 3-D format, the sky’s the limit,” says Rachael Dalton-Taggart, director of marketing communications for Geomagic, a pioneer in sculpting, modeling and scanning software. The company’s products include software that gives digital designers tactile feedback. Wielding a penlike, haptic device—which has motors that push back against the user’s hand—designers can trace the contours of a digital model, feel its surface textures and carve shapes. “It’s like working in digital clay,” says Dalton-Taggart. “The program lets designers create particularly complex and highly detailed organic shapes,” whether for sculptural jewelry or patient-specific medical implants, such as a perfectly modeled prosthetic nose.

The opportunities for customization have long made additive manufacturing appealing to the medical community. Biomedical companies commonly use 3-D modeling and printing to produce personalized hearing aids as well as dental restorations, orthodontic braces—and most recently, skulls. This past March, after FDA review, an unnamed patient had 75 percent of his skull replaced by a plastic implant printed by the Connecticut-based Oxford Performance Materials.


From organs to O-rings, 3-D printing has prognosticators buzzing over its transformative, and even disruptive, potential. If the technology fulfills the predictions of its most ardent cheerleaders, supply lines that connect mass manufacturers in cheap labor markets with consumers in the developed world will be shortened. Mass manufacturing in low-wage countries will decline and markets will be re-localized. With a lower bar between innovating and producing, thousands of new businesses are expected to blossom.

But the growth of this technology raises a thicket of legal questions. Who is liable if a home-printed design fails to perform? Who owns the intellectual property of codes and the objects they produce? (Physical objects can be trademarked and patented, and digital 3-D files can be copyrighted, but in the Maker universe this is considered uncool and counterproductive to innovation.) Three-D printing is bound to encourage counterfeiting, with serious consequences for brand owners. Disney, whose characters are widely copied by Makers, is so far ignoring infringements, but that may change.

Then there are security concerns. Using blueprints downloaded from the Internet, people already have begun printing gun parts. Hackers have stolen personal banking information after creating a widget that fits inside an ATM. As ever, tools can be used for good as easily as for ill. It will be up to myriad government agencies to address the wide spectrum of legal and criminal concerns.

And all new technology produces winners and losers. Additive manufacturing will create new industries and new jobs. But it may also displace skilled craftspeople, artisans and designers who work with raw materials, just as Amazon displaced bookstores, and desktop printers eviscerated mom and pop copy shops. Thanks to the Internet, we are all writers, photographers, filmmakers, publishers and publicists. Soon, we may all be Makers, too. Those who rue that day can take some comfort, for now, in 3-D printing’s weaknesses: The printers can produce objects only as big as their build platforms; and most desktop machines print only in one or two materials, which are fragile compared with those produced by the high-end industrial machines. And, unlike industrial printers, desktop models lack standardization, so different machines using the same design files won’t necessarily produce identical objects. (The National Institute of Standards and Technology is currently helping to develop standards for the industry.)


Throughout my travels in 3-D, cognitive dissonance stalked me. One can intuitively grasp that additive manufacturing has a smaller resource footprint than subtractive manufacturing, in which designs are chipped or cut away from larger blocks of material. Shorter supply chains have smaller carbon footprints, and printing on demand could reduce the waste of closeouts, overstocks and other products that never get bought. But the feedstock of 3-D printers—whether plastics or gypsum powders or metals—still needs to travel the world. Moreover, ABS plastic, the principle feedstock of desktop printers, is derived from oil or gas, which are both finite, polluting resources. (PLA, another common feedstock, is made from corn, which also has a sizable environmental footprint since it requires fertilizer, pesticides and irrigation.) 3D Systems’ Cathy Lewis stresses the recyclability of ABS and PLA, but most communities don’t accept or collect these materials for processing, and I doubt that many customers are likely to mail their unwanted Cube creations to South Carolina for re-milling.

More important, I worry that the ease and relative affordability of making niche or customized products—with the exception of medical and some industrial applications—is just as likely to speed their disposal: Easy come, easy go. When new sneaker designs move from idea to retail shelves in weeks instead of months, design fatigue may set in sooner as well. The result? Ever more sneakers on the trash heap of fashion obsolescence, and a devaluing of the creativity that went into producing them.


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