There was a time when the only way you could get a personal computer was to build one from a kit. The Altair 8800 was both affordable and obtainable when it appeared in 1975, but putting it together took time and skill. The transition to computers that worked right out of the box was relatively swift, and in many ways foretold what were seeing with todays 3-D printers. The technology allows you to make objects from software designs, printing them out by constructing them in layered fashion out of physical materials like plastic and wax rather than ink.
3-D printers have all kinds of uses and are suddenly becoming visible at places like Amazon, where an online store is now selling units from manufacturers like MakerBot, Cubify and Fabbster. If these are not familiar names, remember that in the early days of the PC, many companies came and went as the market shook out, and we can expect the same thing to happen here. 3-D printers aimed at use in the home are exemplified by the Buccaneer, a printer supported by a Kickstarter project that raised almost $1.5 million. The company involved, Pirate3D, offered a fully assembled, cube-like printer for a Kickstarter donation of $347.
3-D printers work by using computer-aided design software to direct the operations of a machine that extrudes thin layers of a base material and molds them into shape with a laser beam. The object is built from the ground up, without the waste of traditional manufacturing processes. At the commercial level, Boeing and Airbus are using 3-D technologies to make small parts, and numerous firms are exploring using these methods for prototyping, where upgrades can be handled through simple software changes rather than expensive retooling of equipment.
And while home 3-D printers are being used for making small, everyday objects, NASA has been looking at 3-D printing as one way to make food available to astronauts on long missions. Its not exactly Star Treks replicator, but a 3-D printer amply supplied with bulk ingredients can print out fresh meals. First to get the 3-D treatment for foodstuffs will be pizza, an experiment designed to take advantage of the layered nature of the average pie, and one that can be tinkered with to produce the right mix of vitamins to create a balanced meal. Food waste drops to zero using these methods and a cuisine beyond the typical pre-packaged fare emerges.
Expect a social impact too. A company called Defense Distributed has produced a handgun made almost entirely with 3-D methods (a steel insert mandated by law so as to be detectable by metal detectors is made separately). Home 3-D printers arent ready to tackle the issues faced by professional gunsmiths but you can see that printing out physical goods raises issues of control and responsibility that are as upending as digital copying has been. A larger question is whether were going to run into the same kind of copy protection issues with physical objects that the Internet has already raised in the distribution of music, books and software.
Early adopters will help identify the places where home 3-D printers make the most sense. The other day I needed a new screen protector for my phone and had to settle for a package of three at the store. Is the day coming when I will simply download software instructions, available at the proliferating 3-D sites on the Net, and let my printer make one on demand? Will we one day print out electronics, downloading the latest tech plans to our machine? It didnt take long to go from the Altair 8800 to the Apple II. I suspect the 3-D printer equivalent of the Apple II isnt far away.
Paul A. Gilster is the author of several books on technology. Reach him at email@example.com.