The Universe of 3D Possibility

Don’t forget that for the rest of this year, I’m revisiting topics, updating research, and chatting about possibilities.  I hope you’ll add to the discussion.  So, here goes:

There’s been a lot of 3D print in the news lately.  There’s some cool things that are now easy to do – you can upload your designs at (although I have to say, the “i” in front of EVERYTHING is as bad as the “.COM” behind every business’s name just before the .com bubble bursting.  But I digress.  i.materialise is catchy.  I’m personally waiting for i.teleport). After you upload and pay, your new object is printed and mailed to you. You can drop by for the same service.  If you don’t feel like making your own designs, you can buy them from other people.  I like the math art piece Interlocked Moebius.

So that’s how I decided to re-visit 3D printing – just in time for Christmas if you start planning now!    I bet you could be the first in your family to design a Christmas ornament and have it printed. I might even have to try that this year… if I can find time.  It sounds like math is involved.

When I did this a while ago, Cory Doctorow’s book Makers was just out and most typical people I talked to (outside of my close circle of geeks) hadn’t heard of 3D print. Not so anymore.  3D print is getting attention beyond the geek media in regular business blogs like smartplanet.  There are quite recent articles on 3D printing at NDTVDr. Dobb’s, and Boing Boing.  Not to mention the New York Times.

Pros and Cons of 3D printing:


  1. The obvious.  You can make anything anywhere, or at least almost, or at least you will be able to someday.  Maybe soon.  Serious upsides of this include printing car and weapon and robot parts for the military or the boy scouts or your retail customers.  Or just a new set of dishes when you want one.   Like every night.
  2. Customization.  At least two of this month’s articles (linked above) reference a fellow designing prosthetic legs by using the remaining regular leg and reversing-imaging.  Maybe this is where you next dental crown will come from.  Shoes.  Sex toys.  A computer chassis to match the paint color in your office.
  3. Nice opportunity for the artistic to brand 3D stuff as theirs and sell it to a lot of people.  Get a good hashtag trend on a new design, and it might be as profitable as having one of the first iphone apps.  But I suspect you’ll need to be developing those brands now.
  4. We authors might be able to design the gew-gaws we give away with our books and send them to your 3D printer, in whatever part of the world you live in.
  5. If mass 3D manufacturing can follow the printing and be done cheaply enough, can we supply basic medical and living instruments world wide?  Filters for water in the third world, etc…

Cons (or unanticipated consequences, or growing pains; the possible downsides of the technology):

  1. It’s got to be said.  We’re already drowning in stuff.  If we can put our 3D printed “stuff” in the hopper and re-use it to make more stuff, maybe we’ve solved the problem.  But if not, then what?
  2. Could put some manufacturing and many retail sectors out of business, or at least change them a whole lot.  How are mom and pop who make sunglasses or chess men or backgammon pieces going to compete?  Or cookware or jewelry or whatever?  Maybe an iphone case shaped like a gun? And just one more reason not to need brick and mortar stores.
  3. Copyright is already weird.  This will make it weirder.  Design is tough to protect (anybody tried to protect a website design lately?).  How do I know your moebius strip ring isn’t a derivative of mine?  (sort of further blends the edges of reality – what’s real, what’s truth or fact, first or second or third cousin removed – who knows and does anyone really care anymore?  Except of course for the originator – if they can really tell they are)  Shapeways has a blog entry on the IP implications of DIY 3D printing. What if your GE blender breaks.  Can you print a part for it without violating GE’s IP?
  4. Imagine the chaos when a serial killer 3D prints a knife for a murder weapon and then melts it down and prints a picture frame out of it the next day.  More seriously, some days I have trouble adjusting the idea that the software I use morphs before I get a chance to learn it.  What if the stuff in our life morphs, too?

The Science Blender:  Questions as food for thought:

Cloning and 3D printing: Yes, right out of last month’s column! We know that we might be able to print organs soon.  Will they be clones from a donor, an open source design that inherits from the human it’s being used for, or platonic forms of organs?

3D printing and nanotechnology: Japan is working on combining 3D printing and nanotechnology in a concept called minimal manufacturing.  Add robotics, and maybe we’ll have a travelling tiny three-D printer that prints new carpets, or a Roomba-like device the size of our thumbs that keeps the garage floor clean at night.

So have at it – what are the other upsides and downsides of 3D printers?  I’d love to see a polite, geeky bar discussion about this happen online.


Brenda Cooper’s latest science fiction novel, Wings of Creation, is out now from Tor Books. For more information, see her website!

2 thoughts on “The Universe of 3D Possibility”

  1. 3d printing is, currently, more expensive than conventional manufacturing for most applications. Printing dishes, for example, would be more expensive than buying dishes made from the same plastic the printer prints on. That seems like a definite con to me.

  2. Yes, it is expensive now. I’ve heard predictions that say 3D printing will follow the same cost/adoption ratio as PC’s. I actually think it maybe a bit slower than that for consumer apps that are widely accepted, but faster for commerce. I am looking forward to new apps, myself.

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