Dude, Where's my Xeroxed Car?

3/17/2013 Stephen Colbert 0 Comments


What's the next big breakthrough?  Wearable technology? Medical technology?  Home automation?  I think it's all that and much more.  It's been gaining steam slowly for a few decades now, but has--for the most--part flown under the radar because it only had limited  uses and was extremely expensive. But with recent advances in computing through open source development and breakthroughs resulting in affordability of hardware and materials, 3D printing has become much more mainstream and is now even available to many households.

Brian Heater, Senior Associate Editor at Engadget, led this discussion between several 3D printing industry experts,  and while everyone was a wealth of information, I could have listened to Avi Reichental (President and CEO of of 3D Systems) forever.  He's the type of person you want to invite to your party.  Ok, maybe not YOUR party, but I would love to have him at my party.  He just celebrated the 20th anniversary of his team's first 3D printed part.  He said they had a 3D printed cake and everything. I'm not sure how much he was joking, but the idea of 3D printed food has had me really intrigued for quite a while.  What if a trip to the grocery store meant getting a refill on your protein tank, picking up some amino acids, and getting some carbohydrates.  I would like to print a plate of food. By that I mean I would like to 3D print a plate... With food on it.  I'll give it 5 years.

Little known fact: The food table at Expand--and all the food on it--
is printed fresh each morning.

3D printed products have actually been in use for years.  Boeing recently said it intends to eventually 3D print entire airplanes, which sounds far out, but 3D parts have been printed for airplanes for over a decade already.  I didn't even know this at the time, but the Invasalign retainers that I had after having my braces removed years ago were 3D printed.  It is nothing new, but 3D printing is just started gaining  prominence in a similar fashion to development of the home PC.  Hod Lipson, an associate professor of engineering at Cornell University, was also in the panel.  He said to imagine sitting here in the 70s, talking about home computing.  Computers were available in the 70s, but home literal desktop PCs--much less any other mobile tech such as laptops or smartphones--were purely fantasy at the time.  If even that.  The processing power of most computers in the 70s was less than most Texas Instruments calculators many of today's generation would have used in school.

Avi described the past decade as a "serendipitous convergence of technology."  Everything necessary to make 3D available--not only to mainstream businesses, but also DIYers, hobbyists, and early adopters --has all come together at the right time.  Some people are utilizing it for things as simple as reprinting the lost battery door from a remote control or to replace a playing piece from a board game, while others are even creating art.  Many of these uses seem trivial and almost like child's play for what the technology is theoretically capable of, but as Hod pointed out, it is much like how the gaming industry was so central in pushing the computer industry forward.  It created a culture of early adopters who were passionate about the product, and they would continually push the market so far that their reach would often exceed their grasp.  It's a constant tradeoff between software demanding more of hardware and hardware daring software to take advantage of available power.

3D printing may seem like a hobby to many, but due to these early users learning to do things like 3D printing bicycles or other items--with advances such as a variance in materials and moving parts,--we are seeing huge leaps in the consumerization of the technology.  I was amazed when I heard Avi say that his current goal is to 3D print a robot that will walk off the printer upon completion.  This kind of manufacturing capability is stunning, and the implications of this type of ability are staggering once it is made cost effective.  3D printing of entire functioning cars, aircraft, furnished and decorated buildings, and my plate with food on it.  In short, everything.

Once it walks off the printer, the robot will immediately begin
hunting down all known mutants.

I'm sure there will be a lot of backlash on this from many different fronts.  There's no way unions (or anyone with a vested interest in manufacturing jobs) will be okay with it.  I'm sure there will be skeptics of reliability and safety, but these are battles that most technical advancements must face.  I had the opportunity during the Q and A to ask Avi about his thoughts on how governments will react from a regulatory or legislative front in the interest of protecting intellectual property or copyright.  To my satisfaction, he actually didn't directly answer the question, but instead launched into a critique of what he said, and I agree, is a counter-productive and antiquated system of protecting intellectual property and copyright.  He said the system, as a result, is allowing an aging infrastructure to continue to become more outdated and less able to meet our needs due to the prioritization of IP protections.

I understand the need to protect ownership of ideas and prevent abuse and misuse of other people's creations, but the problem is that the current system doesn't do that.  The more technology advances, the harder it is to enforce such desires.  I don't mean to go off into a critique of any government legislation, specifically when it comes to intellectual property rights and copyright laws, because that is another several posts But the point is, we need a system that values and protects innovation--but also encourages sharing and adoption of ideas--and 3D printing will be a central part of the battle to create that system.  Things are about to change drastically.  Hopefully it's a change that allows for more innovation and free use of ideas.

Honestly, we're already 3D printing Darth Vader models,
so it's likely all downhill from here anyway

There are also many other concerns about 3D printing that the public will need to become comfortable with, such as the 3D printing of weapons, specifically guns But lets be honest here: the hands that made the first hammer likely also made the first club.  There is always a give and take to new inventions, and that is one of the risks that will have to exist. Name me any innovation that has saved and improved lives, and I will tell you how it has killed and ruined lives.  I don't think this is unique to 3D printing, and adopting a mindset that restricts taking such advancements and reacting to fears of improper or unsafe use will only result in stagnation.

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