3D Printing: a world of design

This topic started brewing in my head at Worldcon in Montreal, as I sat in on a panel on 3D printing by Tom Easton. 3D printing isn’t new to me, and the speed at which it’s advancing shouldn’t have been a surprise. However, it did shock me a bit. I found myself dreaming of 3D printers for a few days. After all, I could already buy one.

Not that the technology is really ready for all-purpose home use yet. However, I do have to admit to being an early adopter and having networked TRS-80’s in the house in the 1980s. So we’ll see.

The most interesting thing about exploring this topic has been that most people just don’t get it. I talked about 3D printing in a keynote address I was giving a month ago. The audience looked like I had grown an extra (and very boring) head. I was in a meeting today with some very well educated people who self-identify as interested in the future, and one person in the room “grokked” the topic when I brought it up as an answer to the question “What technologies will affect the future of libraries?” The rest saw the extra head.

But whether people are noticing yet or not, 3D printing is going to affect us all.

Yet I believe this may be one of the most transformative technologies available and working today. When mature, 3D printing will enable us to manufacture almost anything almost anywhere, and at a high level of customization.

Your one paragraph primer on 3D printing: 3D printing uses from one to a few materials to take a design (created in CAD software) and create the finished object as a truly three-dimensional and often complex printer output. Most 3D print today creates some version of plastic product. There are experiments being done to print RFID chips. Some high-end printers can use multiple materials. Similar to way that I can write a story and print it, engineers and ten-year-olds will be able to design a thing and print it. I’ve heard this characterized as a new economy based on design rather than information.

I suspect it will add a layer to an already complex economy, and that this layer will change us as much the information revolution is still changing us.

3D printing scenarios:

It’s 2017. I go in to the hairdresser to get dolled up for a night out. I bring a sample of the pale blue color of the dress I’m going to print for tonight and one of the taupe shoes I’ve already made this morning. The hairdresser uses a hand-held machine to scan my samples and my scalp, and then she sends a patented design for a hair band only available through her salon to the 3D printer in the back. Twenty minutes later, just as she’s finishing with her blow dryer, one of her assistants brings the hair band, which fits and looks perfect. After my night out, the hair band, shoes, and dress all go into the recycler to be sorted into raw material for my wardrobe the next night out.

It’s 2019. I destroy the bones in my right hand in a bicycling accident. The doctor already has a 3D image of me, and she prints new bones and in a single surgery, she attaches muscles and ligaments and sends me on my way. I’m not quite as good as new, but it’s a close thing, and if I’d done this to myself ten years earlier I’d be in for seven surgeries instead of one, and my hand would never have had more than half its old functionality. Now, I often forget I shattered my hand for days at a time.

It’s 2022. I’m ready to buy a new house. I sit down with the builder/architect and we talk through the particulars of everything from the height of the kitchen counters to the way I want the drapes to look. We also discuss materials for walls, and protective coatings for the exterior. If I’m pretty well-off, I may also buy swarms of bots to maintain the outside of the house in perfect condition. I may be able to “paint” it with a programmable surface. But those are different technologies….

Current Capabilities:

Okay, so if all of that is really possible so soon, what can I do now? More than I had thought. For one thing, 3D printer art hadn’t crossed my mind. Nor had I thought about clay pots. I might have expected to see shoes and eyeglass frames. Mind you, the eye glass frames are not yet high fashion, except in an odd, geeky way. We’ll eventually get frames I might wear to work, and a few years behind that, the lenses. 3D printing is already being used to prototype objects from packaging to architecture.

It’s actually worth going to YouTube and looking up 3D printing, since there are now numerous videos of 3D printing in action. Watching a few of these helped the technology really sink in for me. There is also a good article about this topic over at the Singularity Hub.

Science Fiction and 3D Printing

First, let me thank Jeremy Tolbert and Mary Robinette and a few others for tweeting me about specific stories. One worth mention here is “Kiosk” by Bruce Sterling. It’s all online, and I whiled away a perfectly lovely lunch reading it. Here is the opening line, just in case you need a hook:

“THE FABRIKATOR WAS UGLY, noisy, a fire hazard, and it smelled. Borislav got it for the kids in the neighborhood.”

Sterling effectively describes a world thoroughly changed, and yet in some ways not, by this very same technology. He sets his story in the kind of place a 3D printer might transform most thoroughly; not a powerful industrial nation, but rather one in the middle that remembers when it had more pretensions. I really liked the story.

As I write this, Cory Doctorow is serializing Makers on Tor.com. I didn’t have a way to read the whole thing or even get far into it, but it’s the same topic. The book will come out an even more readable form in October, and I’m really looking forward to it. And just to illustrate how married our new technologies are, two stories I mentioned previously also relate to this topic. “Nano come to Clifford Falls,” by Nancy Kress is very much about 3D printing, and Mary Robinette Kowall pointed out that in her story, “The Consciousness problem” the clones she is talking about are 3D printed.

What stories did I miss? What do you think the unintended consequences of this technology will be? Do you get it? If so, does your neighbor?

I used Twitter to ask some friends what they’d print if they had a 3D printer, and got answers that varied from Klein bottles to appliance knobs. What would you print?


Brenda Cooper’s next science fiction novel, Wings of Creation, will be out from Tor Books in November 2009. For more information, see her website!

5 thoughts on “3D Printing: a world of design”

  1. You’re right, and I’ve been getting the same responsefor five or so years now. It’s too disruptive to considered. It’s like saying “let’s all play suicide bombers” or something.

    I’d print a MTB bike.

  2. I think within 20 years our economy will be insanely different.
    It will be changed at both ends…3D Printing and rapid fabrication given us physical stuff on demand….and Augmented Reality tech removing the need for many things to be physical altogether.

    I think we are a generation or two from the end of materialism. Sounds bezire, but when image and style becomes customizable and transient I dont see value in brand name stuff anymore. Function would dictate value because the form can be anything we want ^_^

  3. I hadn’t thought of it that way, Thomas, at least not the branding part. Design itself if probably copy-writable, but is see people using creative commons for design and open source ideas, and it will make things quite different. The fab machines will be brands of course (yes, you can build your own, but I think most people will want the convenience of buying and printing something unique and form-fitted to them, but many will not want to / have the time to be designers themselves. Perhaps embellishers. 🙂

  4. Enjoyed this Brenda. As someone who’s been involved in additive fabrication for over ten years, it’s always nice to see those outside of the typical user group (i.e. R&D people) taking an interest. And with people like you catching on, I suppose I should get my arse in gear and finish that “Next Gen” series I’ve been blogging for too long.


  5. I hear you. I just ordered a construction kit for a Makerbot (750$ for a 3D-printer, that was a no-brainer). I’m very excited at the prospect of having a printer at home. Yet I find myself tired of having to explain my excitement over and over again to coworkers, friends and (most importantly) my girlfried. 😉

Comments are closed.