3-D Printing is the future available in the now

By NICHOLAS DEPAUL | March 14, 2013

Slowly but surely, the future is creeping up on us.

Nowhere is this more clear than in the 3D printing sector, which has taken off over the past two years.  A laboratory-bound technology until recently, 3D printing has become a legitimate craze, and for good reason.  Experts predict that within a few years, consumer models will be commonplace in average households.

3D printers, for those who do not know, are a technology that produces physical objects by layering polymers or other materials.  For now, most publically accessible printers are restricted to plastics, which come out smooth and lightweight.  But the roadmap points to metal printing, and even the printing of organic compounds.

Imagine the ability to create essentially anything in your home by pressing a button.  Need a new part for your car? Download it online, and print it.  Lost a screw for your new Ikea desk? Print it.  Hungry but don’t have time to go to the store?  Well, that will have to wait, but our generation will almost certainly be accustomed to such practices by old age.

3D printing has already caused major controversy.  Gun enthusiasts, some for hobby and some toward political ends, have begun printing gun parts, and in some cases entire weapons.  The legal debate is just heating up over what this all means, and with the country in a moment of a broader gun control crisis, 3D printing adds yet another wrinkle.

I predict 3D printing will transform human society on the same scale that the Internet did.  In a world already buckling under the loss of manufacturing jobs, the technology will further make irrelevant millions of workers and make life even easier for those at the top of the pile.  Elite society already overlooks the global majority; how much worse will that get when one machine can provide everything you need from your garage?

The biggest limitation, and moral question, asks about the resource needs of the printers.  If food printing reaches a commercial scale, what kind of resources will it require?  Already we see the tech sector gobbling up rare earths and fueling a mass extraction race that is damaging environments and cultures.  What is the dark side of 3D printing?  We’ll have to wait and see.

As students of Johns Hopkins, we are lucky to have easy access to 3D printers.  All students can head to the Digital Media Center to try their hand and designing and printing a personalized item.  More advanced designers can contact the department of mechanical engineering to apply for access to their industrial machine.

First reading, then typing, now coding, next printing. Those with a head-start on this technology will find new doors opening in the years ahead. I, for one, am jumping on the bandwagon.

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