3D printing is not a new technology, it has been around in one form or another for over 20 years with 1986 being the year many credit with its invention. What has changed over the last couple of years is the availability of this technology to the general public. Like many emerging technologies, 3D printing had to first find its way out of DARPA sponsored university labs before being commercially available and then due to its expense remained the preserve of giant multinational manufacturing companies for a number of years. This meant it’s progress along Gartner’s Hype Cycle has been painfully slow only reaching the “Peak of Inflated Expectation” in 2012. The last few years however has seen “Fab Labs” popping up is many cities around the world. The Fab Lab idea sees 3D printing following the tried and tested model used for many years by the 2D printing industry for large volume/high speed colour copying and printing. Rather than an individual purchasing the (still) prohibitively expensive hardware they either commission the item to be printed and supply the 3D file or they rent use of the printer themselves.
2013 is to be the year that 3D printing becomes mainstream and if this happens there are all kinds of ramifications to design, manufacturing and in fact to society as a whole. We saw the beginning of this only a few days ago when the first 3D printed gun was successfully test fired. It’s makers Defence Distributed plan to make the files available to download as part of it’s Wiki Weapons project so that anyone interested can too can print their own gun. See their video below.
Let’s hope their guns are as bad as their videos but joking aside this is obviously something that will get a huge amount of press coverage and will justifiably concern many people. It’s unfortunate that this will be, for many people their first introduction to the whole concept of downloading a digital product that is subsequently manufactured locally through 3D printing. But this is indeed the future that some experts promise us and a future that could result in a move away from designing for mass production towards more bespoke designs manufactured to a smaller scale on demand. Ultimately this could result in designers being freed from the shackles put upon them by economies of scale and allow them to connect directly with the end user in a way that is economically viable. Whether it will or not remains to be seen but 3D printing certainly has the potential to disrupt the industries of manufacturing and design to the same extent that the digitisation of music and movies disrupted those respective industries.
For more information on 3D printing see:
Is 3D printing about to hit the mainstream? from The Guardian.
So what this mean for Assistive Technology? Well big changes, just like every other area of design and manufacturing but in exactly what way it’s still not clear. One project that offers hope for the future is Robohand robohand.blogspot.com/. The Robohand project is focused on developing open-source designs for mechanical finger prosthesis and thanks to Makerbot donating two Replicator 2’s (3D Printers) they already have already made considerable progress, see the video below.