The next tech revolution has been televised, during a State of the Union address on Tuesday in which U.S. President Barack Obama predicted that 3-D printing would bring manufacturing jobs flooding back into the United States. But while 3-D printing can already make a prosthetic limb, a car dashboard or even a gun, conventional forms of manufacturing aren't disappearing any time soon.
A 3-D printer works somewhat like an inkjet printer, but uses liquid resins and polymers to build up solid objects layer by layer. It can take a 3-D design file straight from a computer and fabricate a finished object without the trouble of making moulds. Since it doesn't involve machining from a sheet or block of material, there's little or no waste.
It's great for custom work, such as the porcelain dental crowns that are already being printed off by some dentists. 3-D printers have made props for films such as The Hobbit, elaborate cellphone covers and prototype auto components that have traditionally been hand-made from clay. Sinking prices for materials and machines are making 3-D printing (or additive manufacturing, as it's sometimes called) commercially viable. But there are strict limits to what you can print out now.
"It's not a technology that will print your next watch or toaster," says Tharwat Fouad, president of Mississauga-based Anubis 3D, "and won't in any future that we can foresee." You can make an exact replica of King Tut's mummy without disturbing the original – as was recently done, using CT scans, for a touring exhibition – but a circuit board for a $5 calculator has far too many materials and internal connections for inkjet technology to handle.
But Fouad says that by eliminating the mould stage, and in some cases assembly as well, 3-D printing can compete with off-shore manufacturing. That's a big draw for politicians like Obama, who see 3-D printing as the way to bring jobs back from China. But the printers' net effect will be to take jobs out of manufacturing overall, since hands-on mould preparation and assembly work aren't required.
Some companies are selling personal accessories such as iPod covers made with 3-D printers, and visual artists are beginning to use it for one-of-a-kind pieces. Celebrity artist Jeff Koons is a sponsor of MIT FabLabs, whose Maine outpost is holding a curated exhibition this spring that's billed as one of the first shows of 3-D-printed sculpture. According to the show's website, artists who have a design but no machine can use a printer provided by an exhibition sponsor.
The 3-D printing centre in Cincinnati mentioned in Obama's speech was partly bankrolled by the U.S. Department of Defense, which views the technology as a way to make highly specialized parts for military hardware. Others see more grass-roots applications for printed weaponry. Defensedistributed.com is a "wiki weapon project" that aims to produce an open-source design of a gun that you can download and print out. The "gunsmithing" pages at Haveblue.org detail a couple of dangerous-looking weapons made with 3-D-printed components that contain all the working parts.
So while Obama's manufacturing revolution may turn out to be smaller than his speech implied, it's possible that 3-D printing will launch an irreversible revolution in gun fabrication – which could also render moot the president's attempts to legislate stricter gun controls.