3D Printing – Fad or Practical Tool?

For a while, it seemed as if 3D printing would take the world by storm and that we’d all have 3D printers in our homes pumping out anything we needed. However, since my last article on the topic, 3D Printing Done Faster and Better, the number of articles about 3D technology have decreased noticeably. In fact, the trade press has been a lot quieter on the topic, which makes some people wonder whether 3D printing is actually a fad. The problem with much of the new technology that becomes available is that people initially think there are all sorts of uses for it, but then discover that those uses aren’t practical or that they’re too expensive, and they end up dropping the technology (rather than revise their vision).

You can still find some fanciful uses for 3D printers. For example, the Washington Post recently ran an article recently ran an article on how 3D printers can change the presentation of food. The idea is that you really can have the food presented in a manner that is both pleasing and unique. The idea is to make food in unusual shapes, sizes, and colors, so that it appeals to a larger group of people. However, the original vision was to combine ingredients to actually make the food—this application scales the idea down to a more practical level.

It also looks like 3D printing will see practical use for various higher end needs that aren’t quite professional, but are out of reach of the home owner. Think of printers like the da Vinci 1.0 Pro 3D as a middle ground for experimenters (see the ComputerWorld review). The price is out of reach for the general consumer, but definitely within the range for experimenters and early adapters. Again, the vision is scaled down, more practical, and infinitely more usable.

The military is also using 3D printers to perform practical tasks. Having been a sailor myself, I can tell you without reservation that I would have loved to have been able to print some of the items I needed. Waiting to get back to port before I could even order parts meant serious delays and downed equipment. Imagine having the ability to print a new drone or other needed items while out to sea, rather than waiting for a supply ship or in port visit.

Of course, the medical and other high end uses for 3D printing continue to evolve. For example, 3D printed hands are becoming ever more usable. Expect to see all sorts of new medical uses for 3D printing evolve because humans are notoriously difficult to fit. I envision a day when it becomes possible to print just about any body part needed in the right size, color, shape, and characteristics. New printing strategies may even make the use of organ replacement drugs a thing of the past.

The point is that 3D printing is expanding, growing better, becoming more practical, and still evolving. Yes, you might eventually have one in your own, but don’t expect it to happen anytime soon. Practical uses for 3D printing are becoming more common. Until 3D printing becomes a must have technology for industry, science, military, medical, and other industries, the price won’t come down enough for the home user. To answer my initial question, 3D printing is becoming more practical tool than an interesting new technology, which is why you hear a lot less about it today. Let me know your thoughts about 3D printing at [email protected].


3D Printing Done Faster and Better

A technology becomes viable at the point you start hearing about it on a regular basis. When the buzz around a new technology becomes loud enough and you begin to see real products from it, you know that it at least has a chance of becoming something worthwhile and interesting. Unfortunately, many technologies achieve critical mass, but then die on the vine as a fad because they lack something else. People are willing to give a technology time to grow, but only for so long. At some point, they get bored and move on to the next promising technology unless the current technology manages to grab attention. The technology must do something that keeps the user coming back for more—it must make things faster, easier, less expensive, or have some other benefit that makes it a must have technology. 3D printing is beginning to achieve both critical mass and the must have functionality that will make it the technology to have in the near future.

It wasn’t long ago that a Chinese company actually printed the parts for a building and put it up. In fact, you can find a number of such buildings now, but the buildings are more for publicity than practicality for the moment. You won’t see buildings produced by 3D printing at any scale for some time—the technique will remain a specialty. A little more practical is the printing of larger consumer goods. For example, another story tells you about efforts to print items such as snowboards and motorcycles. However, read the details about these new printing feats and you find they don’t really make the technology a must have development. The motorcycle, for example, is underpowered, overpriced, and requires way too long to build. These examples all demonstrate that 3D printing is doable and they create the excitement needed to move forward, but if the technology were to stay at this level, 3D printing would eventually become just a fad.

Another story talks about how 3D printing could eventually print organs in place. A previous post, Using 3D Printing for Urgent Medical Needs, discusses some of the medical uses for 3D technology, but this use would kick things up several notches. The new technology takes advantage of the body’s natural abilities to help promote cell growth and it would be less invasive than today’s methods of organ replacement. Medical uses currently provide much of the “must have” emphasis for 3D printing, but again, if it remains in this realm, the technology will be too expensive to reach a critical mass of products that ensures it becomes something everyone must have.

Organizations are starting to take notice of 3D printing, which is a good sign. Apple may eventually create a 3D printer for general use. The patent trolls are also showing up, which believe it or not, is a positive sign. All these signs means that there is interest by organizations in 3D printing because there is a sense that they can make money by various means. Even so, the technology still isn’t of the “must have” caliber needed to continued existence.

It was with great interest today that I read about how 3D printing is changing. Not only is it becoming faster, but it’s also becoming more practical. Ford has become involved in using 3D printing to make car parts. The process is faster and it can actually shave time off the production process (a lot of it). It’s this story that is starting to convince me that 3D printing will stay around for the long haul and that we may finally see a radical new way of producing the items we need. The technology has a long way to go yet, but it’s starting to build that “must have” aura around it that will ensure it remains a viable technology. Let me know your thoughts about 3D printing at [email protected].


Star Trek, One Step Closer

I’ve written a number of posts about 3D printing because it has so much potential for creating a new kind of world where things aren’t such as concern any longer. If all you really need are some raw materials to print out anything you need, the overstocking of stuff really isn’t a concern any longer. You will have only those items you need because spares of anything aren’t a problem. That’s how things were on Star Trek. People seemed less inclined to hoard anything because there simply wasn’t a reason to do so. That’s why a recent ComputerWorld article, How astronauts 3D printed a wrench they needed in space, grabbed my attention.

The article points out another use for 3D printing, which is fine, but there are a lot of articles about 3D printing now so that’s not really the focal point. The focal point for me is that the printing process met a practical need in an environment where the need couldn’t be met in any other way. The kicker is that the astronaut in question really wanted a ratchet to go with the wrench and they were able to send him one! In reality, the printer received the plans for the ratchet and simply printed it out like any other part.

The essence of the article is about printing things in space that the astronauts need to accomplish useful tasks. At one time, not long ago, if an astronaut didn’t take something along, it wasn’t available. However, read the story in more detail and you find out that the setup recycles the old plastic devices. This means that an astronaut can create a wrench when needed, discard it, and use the same plastic to create something else. That’s the principle behind the replicator in Star Trek. Old things were remade into new things. So what we’re seeing is science fiction becoming science fact right before our eyes.

The future holds the promise of allowing people to perform tasks in a creative way without having to worry nearly as much about resources. The use of 3D printing will eventually make it possible to create anything needed anywhere. Just how long it takes us to move to the next step will be interesting. There is still a lot of low hanging fruit to pick on the technology tree, but eventually we’ll need to conquer the harder issues of being able to produce complex items at the atomic level. That step should prove interesting indeed. Let me know your thoughts about 3D printing at [email protected].


Considering the Human Face of 3D Printing

A lot of my posts discuss the technical side of issues such as 3D printing. They’re a clinical treatment of a technical topic—devoid of sentimentality. Of course, this is a natural outcome of the kind of writing that I do. Most of my books contain accessibility aids in them because I strongly believe in the power of the computer to level the playing field for those who need a little extra help to be productive. Some of the things I’ve seen during my career have just amazed me and I’m sure that I’d be even more amazed were I to see it all. However, the technology I present is often faceless and lacks that human touch that really is needed to convince people about the validity of using technology to make life easier for those around us. That’s why a recent Parade article, How 3-D Printing is Transforming Everything from Medicine to Manufacturing, struck such a chord with me.

No longer is the technology faceless. You hear about how 3D printing has helped a real little girl live a normal life. The look on Anastasia Rivas’ face tells the whole story. It’s the same look that I’ve seen before when people’s lives are transformed by accessible technologies and it’s the same look that continues to drive me to cover accessibility in every book I write, in every way I possibly can. For me, technology isn’t about games or productivity software; it’s about making a difference in people’s lives—helping them do more with every asset they have. It’s the reason that I’d love to see fully secure, ultimately reliable, and easy to use software sometime in my lifetime, even though such a goal seems absurdly unrealistic today.

The point of this post is that the software you develop has real implications for real people. There is a tendency by developers to view software as an abstraction—as something that simply exists. In fact, there is a tendency to view software simply as a means to an end, but software and the hardware it runs on is so much more. I usually leave out the specific “who” part of an article to help you better concentrate on the technology you’re using. However, after seeing the Parade article, I just had to say something about a specific person affected by the technology that we all use and create as developers.

When you write software, make sure you consider the specific “who” of that software. Specifically who will use the application and what are the needs of that specific person? It’s a question we all need to answer despite the tendency to view software in the abstract. Let me know your thoughts about the human face of technology at [email protected].


Using 3D Printing for Urgent Medical Needs

The uses for 3D printing technology continue to amaze me. For example, it’s estimated that 2/3 of manufacturers now use some type of 3D printing technology. This technology has the potential for significantly changing how doctors practice medicine. More importantly, it has the potential for changing how emergency services are offered. I actually started this series of posts by looking at some potential uses for 3D printing in the Thinking About 3D Printing Technology post. In fact, this is my sixth post about 3D printing technology.

The interesting thing about 3D printing technology is that it can be used to create body parts that won’t suffer rejection because the parts are made from the recipient’s own DNA.The latest use of 3D printing technology is to create skin for burn victims and others that will completely match the person’s own skin. The interesting part is that the skin can contain hair follicles and sweat glands, just as the original skin did. This means that there is a potential for creating new skin that looks completely natural because it won’t actually be any different from the person’s original skin.

It won’t be long and people will be able to get a replica of nearly any body part printed for various uses. Of course, the first use that comes to mind is as a replacement part when an older body part because dysfunctional. However, the uses go well beyond simple part replacement. By creating replicas of existing body parts, a doctor can test for drug interactions and other potential problems before starting a patient on a course of treatment. Many of the issues that patients face today will go away simply because the treatment can be tested fully before it’s applied to the person in question.

What intrigues me most is how this technology will eventually affect emergency services. Imagine what would happen if a first responder was able to apply a bandage created from skin printed from a person’s DNA right in the field. The temporary skin has the potential for decreasing all sorts of problems that people experience today because bandages sometimes just can’t do the job fully. A recent Smithsonian article, Inside the Technology That Can Turn Your Smartphone into a Personal Doctor, put an even stronger emphasis on things for me. When you think about the potential for advanced diagnostic equipment in the field combined with the incredible potential of technologies such as 3D printing, you start to understand that things are going to change in a big way in the next ten years or so. You may not even recognize today’s paramedic any longer. A paramedic may carry a tricorder-type device, rely on a robotic helper coupled to a doctor at a hospital for advice, and perform life saving measures that we can’t even dream of today.

I sometimes look at how computers, computer hardware, and other kinds of technology are being combined today and I’m just amazed. Even though many people view 3D printing as a fad that won’t last very long, I’m beginning to think that it will eventually become an essential part of daily living. Just as PCs were once viewed as toys (useless toys at that), some of the technologies that are in their infancy today will eventually prove themselves.

Where do you think 3D printing is heading? Let me know your thoughts on the matter at [email protected]. What I’d like to hear about most is how you’d like to see this technology covered in upcoming books (or whether you have any interest in it at all).


3D Printed Buildings

Like most new technologies, 3D printing is going to go through stages where people scratch their heads and wonder whether the technology will really work for some purpose. Previous blog posts have covered a number of interesting uses for 3D printing. The story really began to take shape in Potential Commercial Uses for 3D Printing. Most of the uses in that post were a bit on the mundane side, but I really thought the use of 3D printing for horseshoes was one of those uses that would make people think. The point is, 3D printing is being used for an odd assortment of tasks at the moment and printing buildings seems to be just one more in a long series of what could be interesting uses.

The ComputerWorld article makes it plain that the technology is being used for this purpose in China. I’m almost certain that the building wouldn’t pass muster in this country (then again, I could be wrong and I’d love to hear from anyone who has an opinion on the matter). Attempts to research the article further haven’t produced much, so it looks like someone wrote it up as a special interest story and that’s the end of that. The point is that these ten buildings went up in just one day and used materials recycled from other buildings. The whole story reminds me of the scene in I Robot where a robot comes and tears down a building, presumably so that another could be put in its place. At some point, 3D printing of this sort could make it possible for robots to demolish and build custom abodes for anyone who needs one in a fraction of the time and cost that buildings require today.

Where do you think that 3D printing will go in the future? Is it possible that the Star Trek version of the future will really take shape in the form of 3D printing. Of course, in Star Trek the replicator was simply another type of transporter, but 3D printing seems like a more concrete manifestation of the technology to me. Let me know your thoughts at [email protected].


3D Printed Horse Shoes

I seem to have captured the interest of a number of readers with the posts I’ve created on 3D printing technology. The latest of these posts is Potential Commercial Uses for 3D Printing. The more I read about the technology, the more I think it really is more than just a fad. A lot of you think so too because you keep sending me articles on the topic (and you can keep them coming if you like, just make sure they’re substantial articles and not hoaxes).

One such story told about the use of 3D printing for horse shoes. Of course, the story goes into other uses for 3D printing, but the horse shoes really did capture my attention. First of all, the base material is titanium, which is exceptionally durable. Second, the horse shoes are pink. Just how they managed to make the titanium pink isn’t discussed anywhere in the article. I wish the author had researched that particular aspect a little more. (If anyone out there knows how its done, please let me know.)

Naysayers have been downplaying the practical nature of 3D printing technology. It’s true, early uses of the technology were gimmicks of a sort. However, more and more stories are coming out of practical (albeit pricey) uses for the technology. In most cases, the useful applications focus on the adaptable nature of 3D printing—the ability to create output that is custom designed for a particular application. You start with a basic design for a somewhat common item like a horseshoe or an ear, but then the computer makes it possible to create output with the precise dimensions required for a particular application. So, while I continue to doubt that printed food will take off as a common table item, printed medical or industrial applications will become more popular.

The main barrier to generalized use of 3D printing right now is price. Creating a one off design is still quite expensive. However, as developers create software that doesn’t require an expert to use and the price of the technology itself goes down, I can see new uses for 3D printing.

For example, a really practical use for the technology is printing shoes. Shoes that provide a custom fit for each person’s foot are practical because each person’s foot is different. Imagine being able to go to a shoe store, have your foot scanned, and come home with a pair of shoes guaranteed to fit your feet perfectly. So, what is good for the horse today, might be good for humans tomorrow .

Thinking about what the future might bring is interesting and 3D printing is most definitely something that will capture everyone’s attention. What do you see as a practical use for 3D printing? Keep in mind that it needs to be something that really does require custom output. Let me know what you think at [email protected].


Potential Commercial Uses for 3D Printing

A technology can have significant appeal without becoming a mainstream technology. In my post, Thinking About 3D Printing Technology, I discuss some of the implications of 3D printing, including it’s use for accessibility. The 3D Printing Technology Safety post discusses the associated safety concerns with using the technology. However, both viewed 3D technology as just that—technology. In order for a technology to make a significant inroad, it must have a critical mass and one of the means to obtain that is to make a commercial product.

There aren’t any such products today. You can’t go to a store, order a new set of plates, and watch them print out before your eyes. That sort of thing could happen someday, but not quite today (imagine a set of plates where each family member has their picture in the bottom). I recently came across two articles, though, that hold promise for the future.

The first is quite practical and something I foresee being printed in the home, a sweater. The sweaters aren’t available yet, but the article’s author is looking for people to invest in her idea (at $189.00 a pop). The sweaters are supposed to become available by September 2014, which isn’t that far away when you consider the time required to obtain some new technologies. I’m expecting these first efforts to be not quite perfect, but they’ll improve rapidly. The advantage of a printed sweater is that you can create it to match your body perfectly.

The second is an interesting new car named the Urbee. Not everything in the car is printed, but from what the article has to say, a vast majority of it is. The advantage to a designer is that you can print car parts a lot faster than you can build them using other techniques, so it becomes possible (and economical) to play with a car’s design more so you can optimize it. The vehicle looks a bit odd, but most people could probably get used to it. What’s most interesting about this car though is that it gets 300 mpg with a top speed of 70 mph.

These two commercial products are probably just the tip of the iceberg. It would be interesting to find out if there are most such products in the works. Even better, having a crystal ball so you can see what’s going appear in the future would be amazing. For now, I’ll simply be happy to hear about the uses for 3D printing technologies that you’ve seen. Let me know at [email protected].


3D Printing Technology Safety

A number of people have written to comment about the Thinking About 3D Printing Technology post. Obviously, I still have a lot to learn about this technology and some of your questions have taken me quite by surprise (I’ll address some of them later, after I have conducted more research). I always appreciate it when you make me think through the topics I post because the conclusions I reach often make great fodder for book topics.

The one question that didn’t take me by surprise was one of safety. After all, it’s important to know that the output you create is safe. At the time I wrote that post, there was little on the topic of safety, which is why I didn’t include any sort of safety information. A recent article entitled, “3D-Printed Medical Devices Spark FDA Evaluation” tells that the issue of safety is on a lot of other people’s minds as well. The problem for the FDA is that it can’t actually test a printed medical device in any meaningful way and still allow a hospital to use the device in a reasonable time frame (such as in an emergency room), so it allows use of these printed devices on the basis of similarity to devices it has tested thoroughly. In other words, the printed output must match an existing device, except that it provides a custom fit for a particular patient.

I thought about that article for quite some time. It seems to tell me that the FDA is reviewing the issue of safety, but hasn’t come to any final conclusions yet. What I’m trying to do is weigh articles like this one against other articles that decry the complexity and problems of using 3D printing technology. For example, 3D printing: Don’t believe the hype states outright that many of the plastics used for 3D printers aren’t even food safe. I’m assuming that the FDA requires hospitals that rely on this technology to use the correct, safe, materials. Even so, the article does make one wonder about the safety of the materials provided for consumer-level products. Not many people will be able to afford a hospital grade device.

Safety extends beyond the end product, however, and this is where a true scarcity of information occurs. For example, when you melt some plastics, the process produces Hydrogen Cyanide (HCN), which is an extremely dangerous gas. I thought it fortunate that I found an article on the topic entitled, “Is 3D Printing Safe?” The short answer to seems to be yes, 3D printing is relatively safe, but you’ll want to ensure you have proper ventilation when doing so.

This whole issue of safety does concern me because new technologies often have hidden safety issues that are later corrected after someone encounters them (usually with unfortunate results). Like any tool, a 3D printer isn’t a toy—it is a device for creating some type of specific output. For the most part, I’d recommend against letting children use such a device without parental supervision (preferably by a parent who has actually read the manual).  I’d like to hear more of your concerns about 3D printing at [email protected].


Thinking About 3D Printing Technology

Any Star Trek fan will tell you that the replicator technology shown in the show is treated as an ordinary occurrence that isn’t so ordinary today. In fact, a number of the ordinary objects, such as communicators, in the show have become reality and some of them are becoming so common that they’re ordinary to us too. Compare a smartphone to a communicator and you realize that the Star Trek creators didn’t actually go far enough-smartphones are actually a lot better than communicators. This makes me wonder if 3D printers might become the replicators of the future.

If you’ve been reading any of the tech blogs lately, those like https://www.semerika.com/, you’ll know that there has been a lot of news lately about three-dimensional (3D) printing technology. The idea behind the technology is simultaneously easy and complex. The simple part is that a printer adds layer upon layer of one or more substances to create some type of object. The object is described as part of a drawing. Of course, the drawing must indicate all sorts of things in addition to the overall appearance of the 3D object, including which substances to use and what color to make them as needed. Creating a precise description of everything needed to create a real world object can be a complex undertaking and some objects defy simple description.

As with any new technology, 3D printing has plenty of hype surrounding it (such as the printer being able to pay for itself in as little as a year). In fact, hype is a problem because it builds unrealistic expectations. Anything you read about 3D printing today is in an experimental stage for the most part. John Dvorak explores the problems with the hype in his post, “Enough With the 3D Printer Hype Already.” Yes, creating a gun using a 3D printer is doable, but result isn’t really usable today (tomorrow may be another story). However, I get the feeling that many detractors haven’t read quite as much as they should before making a judgement about 3D printing and the sorts of things it can do.

There are other uses for 3D printing that only large organizations can afford. For example, I read about the use of 3D printing technology to create artificial reefs in the August edition of National Geographic (in the Next section). The printer is the size of a house and produces an 1,100 pound result that really isn’t in the realm of something that most people would want to create. However, it’s a useful output of 3D printing technology that is in use today. In fact, there are many uses for 3D printing today, but it’s important to remember that this technology is in its infancy.

Although many of the uses for 3D printing that you read about are for common objects that we can produce less expensively and with greater precision using other technologies, it’s the uses that aren’t available today that intrigue me most. For example, you can use a 3D printer to create a tiny lithium battery. This battery is the size of a grain of sand. You might wonder where a battery like that might see use. Of course, use in spy gear comes to mind immediately, but a more productive use is in medical equipment where battery size is currently a problem.

In fact, for now at least, the main practical area of 3D printing may be for medical use. There was a recent story that talked about doctors printing an emergency airway tube to save a baby’s life. What most people don’t realize is that hospitals don’t typically carry standard airway tubes in the right size for infants because the number of sizes needed would be quite large. In this case, printing proved to be the only practical way to create an airway tube sized for this particular child.

Of course, not every medical use will save lives in such a dramatic fashion. Many uses will be more mundane. For example, a doctor could print a new ear or a new bone for you when needed. Some of the medical techniques use cells from a person’s own body, which makes the risk of rejection quite small. However, even these articles state that this particular use of 3D printing technology is still experimental. The point though is that the technology is being tried in these areas and the result is something that you can’t easily manufacture.

Creating objects using 3D printers is a reality. The cost of those printers is also decreasing in at least some cases. However, the technology is still quite new and you need to take what you read with a grain of salt. Eventually, you’ll likely see 3D printer technology used in a way that makes those replicators on the Enterprise pale by comparison. Let me know your thoughts about 3D printing technology at [email protected].