The year in 3D Printing
For the longest time I have resisted putting a category on TreeHugger called 3D Printing. Since we started covering the topic in 2007, additive manufacturing, or 3D printing, was only one of a number of technologies that did the key function of taking an image or drawing from a computer and turning it into an object. So it might be CNC machines that created flatpack furniture and even houses, laser cutting equipment, automated lathes, as long as they fulfilled the key principle that I called dematerialization, or downloadable design:
It is like the music for our iPod; dematerialized bits and bytes put together again where we need it, without the waste of a physical intermediary. In a world where we watch our carbon as closely as our waistline we don't want to be driving to stores; in a world where everything can be digitized, why move material when we are interested in ideas, creativity and talent?
© Hot Pop Factory
It was about a process, not a piece of equipment. But I have given up. 3D printing as a term has become so trendy; it is applied to almost everything, including a lot of technologies that it isn't really at all. And this year, it was everywhere. Our friends at the Hot Pop Factory even designed and printed a crack pipe in the shape of Rob Ford.
Déjà vu All Over Again: A 2013 Home 3D Printer Is Like a 1983 Dot Matrix PrinterDot Matrix Printers Were So Futuristic!/Screen capture
We started the year with a look at how 3D printers today are pretty much like dot-matrix printers and computers were in 1983: very lo-res and used to replace things that we already had, such as slide rules and typewriters. It was before people really started figuring out what computers could do that was different and new. As far as the resolution went, it took a full 25 years to go from dot matrix to full color laser printing at home. Yet people's expectations of 3D printing are wildly compressed.
3D Printing in the Home: Fad, Fantasy, or the Future?XKCD/CC BY 2.0
That post sparked a remarkable debate in comments between commenter Joseph Adair and former TreeHugger contributor Ruben Anderson, a dialogue that went on for pages. With some editing I reprinted it as a post;
Watch Out, IKEA, Here Comes The Robotic ChainsawEchtwaldshop/Screen capture
Not all digital design is additive; this one is decidedly subtractive.
No more cutting down trees and shipping them to mills and turning them into lumber and making the wood into furniture, this machine skips all the middle steps and goes straight from tree to furniture, taking a chainsaw to the entire supply chain with digital design.
More cold water on the idea of 3D printing in your living roomMasaki Ishitani/CC BY-NC 2.0
Here is a guy I agree with.
Michal Zalewski concludes that we shouldn't be so focused on today's primitive tech. "It pays to focus on the process, not on this week’s most-hyped tool." He's right; what is fascinating isn't the squirting of ABS plastic, but the process of digital design and relocalized manufacturing, whatever the technology.
Softkill Design joins race to build the first 3D printed houseLloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0 There is evidently a race on to build the first 3D printed house, but I would make the case that the digital house has already been done, and that matters more than the technology. This one is clever, built up from little pieces that snap together, all individually designed and produced.
The best present ever: A 3D printed gummy version of yourself© Fab Cafe
Meanwhile, at the Fab Café in Tokyo, they are doing really useful stuff in 3D printing, namely making personalized gummi people. You get scanned, a mould is printed and a gummi you is cast. Just what you always needed.
Just what we needed Dept: The 3D printed gunDEFCAD/Promo image
It doesn't take a lot to make a zip gun, people did it for years before real guns got so accessible and affordable. The basic principle is simple: figure out how to hold a bullet in place and drive a nail into the back of it. It's not news, unless it's 3D printed. Then it's news everywhere. Sigh.
AtFAB launches flatpack furniture made through "networked distributed manufacturing"© AtFAB
When Makerbot, the manufacturer of 3D printers for the home, designed their offices, they did it with atFAB out of flatpacked plywood digital designs. They didn't try to print little pieces in their printers and snap them together. They recognized that different technologies are suited to different ends and purposes, even if they all start digital.
CT scanned 3D printed monster homes hit hermit crab real estate market© Aki Inomata via Designboom
And again, all those designers racing to build the first 3D printed home, since when did they get so speciesist? It's been done for hermit crabs, why doesn't that count?
The "perfect sweater": Appalatch launching 3D printed wool sweaters (Video)© Appalatch
This is where it gets silly. Its a computerized knitting machine, not a 3D printer. It's not local, it is at their factory and shipped to you. It is digital design, totally customized, that's part of the total picture here, but let's call it what it is.
NASA working on first 3D printer for space© Made in Space
This is not silly, FEDEX doesn't deliver to the International Space Station. It makes a lot of sense to have a high quality printer to make parts there.
The ability to 3-D print parts and tools on demand greatly increases the reliability and safety of space missions while also dropping the cost by orders of magnitude. The first printers will start by building test items, such as computer component boards, and will then build a broad range of parts, such as tools and science equipment.
3D print your pizza with the Foodini home printer© Natural Machines via Designboom
This is interesting, because it is not just about pushbutton food, it is about bringing back into the home those things, like fresh pasta, that people gave up on years ago, happy to buy the dried stuff, sacrificing flavor for convenience. But curmudgeon Ruben in comments goes "Hmph. I think cooking is more than heating up food. Cooking involves, chopping, stirring, rolling, measuring. This is just a more wasteful-of-energy-and-resources way of eating pasta that is probably less good than the fresh pasta you can buy at the deli."
The inventor disagrees with Ruben, noting that "The machine is simply doing the "assembly" bit of taking your pasta dough and shaping it the way you want."
10 ways 3D printers are advancing science© Foster + Partners
There are so many more, but I am running out of 2013, so will leave the last word to Megan who notes that "ne of the areas that 3D printing has had its biggest impact is in the science field where the ability to customize and instantly create a tool or new medical device has proven to be quite powerful. From small labs to NASA, researchers are using the technology to advance their knowledge and perform their jobs more easily."