3D Printing: “the early stages of the Star Trek replicator”

June 12, 2013

The team from University of Waterloo displaying their 3D printer technology at Discovery 2013.

3D printing is definitely what you'd call disruptive or transformative technology. Can't picture it? Consider this, these printers are essentially self-replicating; once you have a printer, you can print yourself another printer.

Discovery keynote speaker and noted futurist, bestselling author and successful entrepreneur Peter Diamandis named 3D printing on his list of "exponential technologies" - technologies that are literally transforming the world and giving entrepreneurs the opportunity to touch the lives of a billion people.

3D printing or additive manufacturing is a process of making a three-dimensional solid object of virtually any shape from a digital model. Successive layers of material are laid down in different shapes layer by layer via a number of different processes.

"This is the early stages of the Star Trek replicator," said Diamandis in his Discovery keynote address. "This is a device that can literally print anything out of 200 different materials – plastics, glass, titanium, even human cells. 3D printing is going to transform our total manufacturing base."

3D printing is a game-changer in manufacturing because it can manufacture things that weren't previously possible, (i.e. a chain link without fusion) and provides the ability to easily customize. Perhaps the largest role it plays in manufacturing currently is in product development and prototype design,  allowing for very quick turnaround of prototype components. It can also significantly shorten supply chains and could potentially reshore production, which has social, economic and environmental benefits as well. But most of all, for entrepreneurs and companies it means getting products to market faster than ever.  

"You can print a solid block of material layer by layer by layer, or print the same size block with 1,000 moving parts in between, in the same amount of time and for the same amount of money – complexity comes for free," said Diamandis. "You can print a polygon, within a polygon, within a polygon, as in titanium turbine blades. So we’re already starting to see a lot of 3D printed components for our aerospace industry, or even our automotive industry."

The at-home applications of 3D printing are intriguing and practically limitless. 3D printers will most certainly become household items at some point and with them will come the power to print (or essentially manufacture) where you consume. Instead of buying products, people will download open source designs and print products from websites like Thingiverse. No need to run out to the dollar store when you can print your own plastic disposable items – especially if you could melt down plastic you find around the house and re-print new ones

"In the future, these 3D printers are going to enter our lives in our desk drawers, in our closets, etc.," said Diamandis. "If you have a gala event to attend tomorrow night, in the future you’ll go home, you’ll go online and you’ll see a beautiful dress designed in Bangladesh that morning, you’ll hit print and you’ll have it 3D printed in your closet you’ll wear it that evening then recycle it to print the next thing."

In Ontario, although company Panda Robotics is developing a desktop PandaBot, “a 3D printer for the masses,” we are doing more with applications for 3D printing than with the technology itself.

Current applications in development range from the novelty of printing with chocolate to the revolutionary with medical applications. PhD engineering student Lian Leng at the University of Toronto has developed a 3D tissue printer that could save lives and revolutionize burn care around the world. At Sick Kids hospital, researchers are investigating how 3D printers could help them with surgical practice and other applications. An abnormal organ can be 3D scanned and printed so doctors can look at it, hold it, pull it apart to understand it before they ever have to go in and operate on it. Further medical applications include custom prosthetics and implants.

It's the next generation who are really seized with the potential of this technology, excited by the open-source and social possibilities. They are the ones who are going to innovate with this technology and actually accomplish Peter Diamandis' vision of impacting the lives of a billion people.

"Imagine if you would, being able to have almost anything you want, being delivered at any time, anywhere...We’re going to start to see a lot of transformation on this road to abundance."