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What do you do when it is time for a new pair of shoes, a new bag or phone? Chances are you will shop for them online or buy them at the local mall. Yet a technical revolution on the scale of the Gutenberg press is quietly changing how we produce, what we consume, and perhaps most important, the role each of us will play in the process. It is called 3D printing.


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Considered an “additive” rather than a traditional “subtractive” manufacturing process where material is removed from a block to carve out the desired object, most 3D printers function by depositing layer upon layer of a fused particulate substrate until a complete physical model is built from the dimensions programmed into CAD printer control files. This can even be done with geared and moving objects such as a wrench or even a wind-up clock that will work from the moment they have left the printer. 3D printing can be used in “rapid prototyping,” in which forms are printed out of plastics and resins as test objects, and in “rapid manufacturing” where the parts are made from the final desired material, such as steel. As the strength of epoxies and other composite materials grows, the difference between prototyping and manufacturing shrinks. And with printers that can “write” several distinct materials simultaneously, it will be possible to print everything from electronic tablets to robots to commercial aircraft at a single point, without resorting to the traditional assembly line.

Noting in his 2012 State of the Union Address that our first priority is making America a magnet for new jobs and manufacturing, President Barack Obama forecast that the advent of 3D printing “has the potential to revolutionize the way we make almost everything.” One can easily imagine eyeglass frames or cups being manufactured this way, but what about houses, food, or even human bones and organs? Reducing the cost of locally-produced goods through ubiquitous 3D printing could help businesses re-onshore manufacturing.

A lightweight footprint, high levels of customization, and speedy delivery means 3D printing may help make domestic manufacturing more competitive than shipping finished goods from overseas. —Joe McKendrick, SmartPlanet

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Perhaps more profound are the social implications of a new industrial revolution with the power to transform mass production to mass customization and offer many the opportunity to design and sell these designs online. Need a new iPhone case? Perhaps you prefer the one designed by the girl in Kuala Lumpur. STL file cost=$1.99. This democratization of production, and more important, of design, could actually be the distinguishing feature of a new renaissance soon to be known as Web 3.0.

Watch this video at YouTube.

Marshall McLuhan wrote that “Gutenberg made everybody a reader. Xerox makes everybody a publisher.” In this case, what does the advent of low-cost 3D printers make us? Democratized design and personalized production could do for the things around us far more even than that which eBay has done for buyers, has done for sellers, and what YouTube has done for anyone who interested in distributing their video worldwide. Power to the printers!


# InstructorGuest 2013-03-07 15:55
Nice work Doug. Verry compelling.