I’ve been reading a lot of science fiction lately, from Daniel Suarez’s Daemon, which I reviewed here to Rule 34 by Charles Stross and a couple of stories of the author Cory Doctorow (amazing stories) which I’ll be reviewing later some day. All of these stories had one thing in common – written within the past few years, they all discuss the topic of 3D printing.
3D printers are a new technology that allow you to take a 3D model on your computer, feed it to the machine and within a few hours, get a plastic model in your hands. 3D printers are great for prototyping designs and for printing complex arts and crafts and every day use items and seeing by what I’ll be talking about, the era of 3D printing has already begun.
While the stories I talk about predict a world where 3D printers are used almost ubiquitously, the use of these machines in these stories was always a negative one. That is not the case in the real world. I came across a website recently – www.shapeways.com. This company has made it their mission to use 3D printing to create vivid, different and unique designs. The best part? They’re crowd sourcing the designs. People are invited to join the marketplace by uploading a design to the website. Once they do that, they can either print the designs for their own use or can put a price on the design and others can order the design from the website. The company, upon receiving the order, simply uses their 3D printers to create the design and ship it to the customer, giving back the original designer a commission for their design. It’s a wonderful model and from the promotional material on the site, the company is doing rather well in this niche market. What’s interesting is that while some designers have uploaded their designs and allowed only the company to print the end product, a few have open sourced their designs. A good example is this great necklace here called the “One ring to rule the ball”. At the end of the description, the designer has added a link to the design file for free download. That means that those who have 3D printers at their homes or offices can take this design and print it in front of their eyes without having to wait for the UPS delivery to arrive. Such is the magic of 3D printing. This is a great option also because the company is located in the Netherlands and overseas shipping is still an awful wait.
While describing 3D printing in a short story called Printcrime, Cory Doctorow describes a world where 3D printers can print almost anything, legal or otherwise, and how our lives would revolve around these newly ‘printed’ blenders and bird cages. That may well be our future. The fact that it’s already here, in the form of open source 3D designs and print shops selling crazily innovative designs just shows there’s no imagining what tomorrow will be like for us. Maybe, like Daniel Suarez’s Daemon says, organized crime will use it to source weapons one plastic piece at a time and maybe, a Rule 34-esque government will ban the publishing and distribution of certain 3D designs in order to maintain civility. What I’m glad about is that here, today, I can go online and download a complex design, push it to the printers and have something as awesome as the following iPod nano watch in my hands in a few hours!