Tuesday, February 19, 2013

The Rise of the 3D Printer

I grew up in the era of the Jetsons, Star Wars, and Star Trek—in other words, the modern Sci-Fi era. Our vision of what the future might be was shaped largely by what special effects artists could believably put on the large and small screen.

Ironically, many of the Popular Science and Popular Mechanics magazines that I read back then were continually looking back to the Dick Tracy comics to benchmark how far technology had advanced. We, by comparison, had Roger Moore playing James Bond, which by comparison to the “Star-themed” fiction presented plausible technology. (Who couldn’t envision a watch with a homing beacon?)

The chasm between our ability to envision futuristic inventions and our ability to make them reality was largely the result of the unavailability of tools for making the technology. Now, the advent of the 3D printer finally may bridge that gap and lead to a surge ahead in technology.

For the uninitiated, here’s a crash course on 3D printing. We have all watched the cool commercials where gigantic machining bits zip at fast speeds around a large block of clay or polymer to make, by subtractive process, a model of some sleek new vehicle. The 3D printing process is completely different: the printer recreates images in small layers, building detail to recreate the exact form/image of the design that has been loaded into the printer. (For evidence of the unequivocal truth of my description, see Wikipedia; it’s never wrong…) While I recognize that proper design, engineering and precision is needed to format a 3D printer to make a truly authentic object, the ability to replicate that object quickly and with precision is what is so fascinating. 

The growing captivation with 3D printers reached the global stage last week when President Obama mentioned it in his State of the Union address. Not surprisingly, shares of 3D printing companies spiked (and then fell again on the heels of the POTUS bump.) Companies producing these printers have also elicited some scrutiny because their product can more quickly reverse engineer technology by using more precise 3D and 4D laser measurement tools. Not surprisingly, the prospect of rapid replication has put some manufacturers into a cold sweat and patent litigators into a state of heightened anticipation (Newton’s 2nd law…) These printers have even received some national security attention because of speculation about what else they may be able to do (the creation of certain banned accessories for weapons). 

Alas, the era of putting a 3D printer in the basement or next to your coffee maker isn’t quite here yet. Personal 3D printing is still cost-prohibitive and no company has yet to crack the market with one that you could get with your Best Buy RewardZone™ points. There is, however, at least one start-up company looking to do just that. In the meantime, I found one on eCrater at a bargain price of $34,800. 

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