Courtney Ambrosia
Jul 22, 2011

3D Printing: Science Fact Meets Science Fiction

In this day and age, the growing trend towards technology seems to be an undeniable recognition amongst the intelligent collective that something curiously interesting is happening, and furthermore, that there is something rather enticing surrounding it.  We’re steering into a rapidly transforming, malleable world in which the capacity for possibility seems endless. The plasticity and variability of physical matter almost appears to mimic the nature of dreams. We must ask ourselves if truth really is stranger than fiction.

The intersection of plausibility and imagination is becoming more relevant with current trends in scientific innovation. The ability to rapidly spread ideas opens a Pandora’s box of alternative possibility that slightly borders on weirdness at times. Should this opportunity to advance technologically proceed without a word of caution? As the lines between science fact and science fiction become more blurred, a willing suspension of disbelief is nearing, much like an audience enjoying a story that is set in a fictional time and space. Considering that fiction is crafted either to entertain or to deceive, we must break our preconceived notions to really go beyond the boundaries of what we think is plausible under the confines of natural law. If we let our imaginations run wild, where will this take us next?

Just imagine a world where you could run your own factory alongside your printing press and your computer to create exact replicas of tools or whatever else you could fancy from digital designs. Surely, this must be the machinery of a fictional setting. Brace yourselves, because that setting is here and now. The 3D printing revolution is upon us, and no 3D glasses are required to behold the wonder at hand. 

Believe it or not, groundbreaking technology has made this degree of fiction a supposed reality in the manufacturing arena since 2003. The genesis of this new printing model has made it possible to download a design from the Internet for a practical wrench in order to construct a fully functioning replica on the spot.  Theoretical physicist David Kaplan of the National Geographic show Known Universe observes this exact intellectual property break through in person with the assistance of Joe Titlow, vice president of product management for Z Corporation, one of the premiere manufactures of 3D printers. In a feat of seemingly magical wonder, Kaplan examines a fully functioning duplicate wrench created with a specially engineered powder composed of composite material. The powder interacts with a binder substance to secure the three dimensional object together.

The printing process begins with a blueprint representing a virtual 3D model shaped by a computer aided design (CAD) program which is in turn saved as a file, allowing the user to manipulate the model accordingly and thus distribute the file online. This iterative design process aids engineers in envisioning the physical properties of replicated objects prior to manifesting in three dimensions.

Does this sound too far-fetched to believe? It most certainly is not. Although, this breed of technology is eerily reminiscent of Cory Doctorow’s science fiction novel Makers in which two hackers in the grip of a staggering economy are responsible for a maker subculture revolution with the advent of ubiquitous contraband 3D printing technology. This world of the future that Doctorow examines is now growing closer to fact as 3D printers become more mainstream. In Doctorow’s fictional world, these 3D maker machines eventually become illegal due to copyright infringement of trademarked and patented objects undergoing a manufacturing process.  In this battlefield, design patents are not taken lightly. The iterative design process utilized within the 3D printing arena has contributed to a public awakening based upon the general public’s “fair use” capability to share ideas, create matter, and innovate.

Michael Weinberg is no stranger to this kind of technology. In his November 2010 article, “It will be awesome if they don’t screw it up: 3d printing, intellectual property, and the next great disruptive technology,” Weinberg asserts that a majority of these 3D printers work in a similar fashion, despite the various competing designs out on the market. The RepRap project exists as yet another open source desktop 3D printer boasting the capacity to print plastic objects. But no matter what model of 3D printer you use, the method is basic: a three dimensional printer always constructs the desired object layer by layer from minute particles of material. So rather than take a solid mass of material and altering it until it resembles a design model, you are literally creating physical atoms from the ground up. This has multiple consequences. Users will not have to deal with the imminent hassle of assembling unique parts of the whole object, as the 3D printer boasts the luxury of printing the object already assembled.

Is the sky really the limit with this kind of technology?  Does such a convenience also come with some drawbacks? Consider the implications: these machines are becoming more common place as time marches on, and furthermore, the capacity for the everyday home version is right around the corner. So the question remains: what if this brand of technology finds its way into the wrong hands?

According to Weinberg, the capacity for this degree of replication also breeds the capability for creation, growth, and innovation.  However, he believes that on the flip side of the coin, some people are bound to view the 3D printing revolution as an imminent threat.  If history has taught us anything, we know that chaos tends to precede enlightenment. Prior to the 3D printing revolution, technological innovation from the printing press, the copy machine, and the personal computer represented an opportunity to share ideas and information readily. But should these revolutionary “opportunities” to spread creativity and knowledge be construed as chaos or enlightenment, or perhaps even both? I suppose only time will tell…

For readers interested in seeing this technology at work, check out this youtube video.