The third dimension

BRETT ROBERTS
Last updated 05:00 18/12/2012
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OPINION: I recently presented sessions on the future of technology at a large conference in Auckland. The topic that really got people interested was 3D printing.

In the next decade or two I think this will have an impact similar to the one the internet has had in the last couple of decades. It's only 27 years since Apple released one of the first mass market laser printers — the Apple LaserWriter — and effectively kicked off the desktop publishing revolution. The reason for the revolution was simple: printing capabilities once only available to the professionals were now available to anybody with an Apple computer, a copy of Aldus' PageMaker software and a LaserWriter.

That’s not to say the results were as professional, but it didn’t take long for desktop publishing bureaux to spring up all over the place, offering publishing services to all and sundry and offending more than a few of them with a mishmash of fonts, awful clipart and other aesthetic assaults.

These days nearly everybody has access to that level of technology, but what drove the bureaux phenomenon was the fact the requisite hardware and software was relatively expensive at around US$15,000 back in 1985 (about $30,000 in 2012 terms).

The first commercial 3D printers appeared in the mid-1990s and were incredibly expensive and complex. Since then, inevitable improvements in the product and its speed, combined with a substantial decrease in cost, means 3D printers are starting to invade the market.

So why does this matter — and where’s that revolution I mentioned? It matters because the ability to manufacture physical things from digital files makes distributed manufacturing and mass customisation a reality.

Why build huge, centralised factories to churn out standardised items when the digital representations of those items, like computer aided design (CAD) files, can be made available to people who use 3D printers to create, customise and print them? And why use expensive and comparatively slow logistics networks to move those items when the internet can do it quickly and for free?

That’s only part of the revolution. Whether it’ s a child using a home 3D printer to create toys and game avatars, doctors using 3D printing to make titanium replacement jawbones, or an adult using an online service such as Ponoko to create a personalised plywood coffee table, 3D printing and other fabrication technologies are enabling people to design and manufacture things they weren’t able to just a few years ago. It’s not hard to imagine the incredible innovation that will be fuelled as a direct result of all of this.

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Ponoko is worth calling out as an example of a company on the leading edge. Co-founded in 2007 by New Zealander David ten Have and based in Wellington and California, it bills itself as 'the world’s easiest making system'.

The company offers 3D printing, laser cutting and 'shopbot' fabrication of larger items (plywood coffee tables, for example). By linking creators, material suppliers, digital fabricators, DIY'ers and buyers, Ponoko has positioned itself in the middle of a rapidly expanding ecosystem. It will be interesting to chart its progress as the revolution gathers pace.

One other, far more controversial aspect of the 3D printing revolution is what these printers can be used to produce and the almost inevitable government intervention. In July this year, somebody 3D printed the lower part of a gun and used it to assemble and successfully test fire a .22 calibre weapon.

He used a relatively old 3D printer and it’s a safe bet that a fully functional, entirely 3D-printed gun isn’ t too far away. There is another type of 3D printer which, apparently, can be used to print designer drugs. You don't need a crystal ball to imagine the response of law enforcement agencies if those CAD files start being shared via the internet. It seems some crystal ball gazing would show it won’t be too long until you can download a CAD file for this too and print it out at home.

Brett Roberts is director of new technologies at Pitney Bowes New Zealand and CEO at connector Wharf 42.

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