3D Printing is a Big Deal

Part of our Hey, Look at That! Series

3D printing is a fascinating subject. And getting more so by leaps and bounds.

Ray Kurtzweil reminds us in his seminal work, The Singularity, that often times new technology bursts forward with what seems to be great potential, only to fall short. At this point, many people conclude that the promise was greater than the potential and they move on. Others keep at it and in many cases, they finally bring the new technology to fruition, changing the world at an ever accelerating pace. I think this is the case with large scale 3D printing.

In its early stages, 3D printing was great if you wanted to purchase a $3,000 machine to manufacture your own chess pieces or key chains. But before too long, medicine embraced the technology, especially in the design and production of artificial limbs and related uses. To say this technology is revolutionary in this field would be an understatement.

And then larger scale applications started to come on line. About the time Elon Musk and others started talking about 3D printing as a crucial element in building shelters and equipment on Mars, a number of people began experimenting with 3D printing as a way to build houses and other structures.

The initial efforts were tiny structures, and pretty simple at that. But before long, legitimate tiny houses, with built in conduits for plumbing and wiring were being constructed. Larger buildings started being fabricated. While we were in China last year, we learned of an entrepreneur who was doing very large-scale construction using modular building components to make very large buildings to high standards in record time. He saw 3D printing as his next enabling step in a construction revolution.

The way we build houses and other building, and our highways, is about a century behind.3D printing may provide a solution to many of these challenges. Click To Tweet

I have long marveled that the way we build houses and other building, and our highways, is about a century behind. Our standard approaches take way too long, involve far too many steps and too many types of materials, and are far too costly. 3D printing may provide a solution to many of these challenges.

Don’t get me wrong. I have the greatest respect for the construction trades. I helped build my first house with Habitat for Humanity last year and one of my strongest impressions was of the skill and dedication to standards of the construction professionals I worked with over several months. Still, the time it took to build a single house and the array of dedicated skill sets required seemed excessive, even for this lean and well-tuned crew.

This week I read a short but interesting update on 3D printing in construction, in the May edition of Fortune magazine. It’s a good read, and a fine illustration of technological advance    ( https://fortunedotcom.files.wordpress.com/2018/04/05-18-tdp-3d-houses.jpg ).

In brief, one company cited has developed a large -scale machine that will “print” a house of concrete strength, in about 48 hours, at about half the traditional cost. They are doing small houses now but are ready to ramp up both production and the size of their buildings. They expect to be able in a year or two to routinely produce houses in the 1500 square feet range, in a matter of days, for half the traditional cost.

Think of the implications of that. The savings of time, money, and materials could be substantial. Housing shortages might be much easier to reduce, if not nearly eliminate. But the impact on skilled trades must be addressed and likely new standards of quality control and inspections will be required. Overall, the potential and the impact are enormous.

We live in interesting times.

2 replies to 3D Printing is a Big Deal

  1. You are so right that 3D printing is a big deal.

    I was just reading about technology to replace a human heart with tissue from the patient’s own cells. A 3D printer structures the cells to form a new heart, modeled on an image of the patient’s original heart.

    Here’s the article I read: https://www.fastcompany.com/40519642/working-beating-hearts-will-soon-be-3d-printed-from-patients-own-cells

    Imagine the impact of this. How will we decide who gets a new printed heart, and in what order? Will this just benefit people with money? What if we can start replacing other failing organs, and increase the human lifespan? I worry it may lead to even more strain on limited resources. We need to think about how we use earth’s resources, especially with regard to the impact on the rest of the people here now, and to be born in the future.

    3D printing may indeed could have a big impact on every aspect of life — from health to ethics to economics, to education (because we have to teach people to understand what’s going on).

    I’m not sure 3D printing is most likely to save us from more wasteful ways of making things. I actually fear the opposite — that it may drive even faster resource consumption that the earth can’t sustain.

    What do you think?

    • Excellent observations, Joanne. 3D printing is a near perfect example of unknown potential and unforeseen results, good and bad. I see more good than bad in the potential assessment, but it surely does offer new prospects for “haves and have nots” and some interesting implications for resource use and potential waste. It will be interesting to see how this all develops.

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