The ability to print objects in three dimensions has been around since about the 1980’s.
Initially, like the first computers, 3D printers were huge and limited in their abilities. However, due to the speed of advances in technology and the reduction in both size and cost, 3D printing is a new frontier that is both beautiful and scary.
In basic terms, the most common type of 3D printing is extrusion printing, which is an additive process, in that material is slowly added onto a bed and then built upon. There are a number of different ways to achieve a printed 3D object with the various methods relying on the material that is being used to create the object. The object is designed in 3D software (such as CAD) and then uploaded to the printer, and then it is “assembled” on a bed or platform by printing a layer at a time (think of it in terms of printing layers of a CAT scan). The only problem with this is printing unsupported structures, however a supporting structure could be built into the design and then removed after printing. This type of process can be used to print in thermoplastics some metals and even edible foods such as chocolate (we can leave this one to Heston). Using other printing methods, it is possible to 3D print with almost any metal alloy and 3D printing of working microchips it not far away.
(Sorry, but its going to get complicated here) There is one company that is producing 3D printers made from 3D printed components, and they have released their design specifications under a public license. So it is possible to buy a 3D printer and then print the components to create more 3D printers who can, in turn, create even more 3D printers.
The interesting part of this is all the applications that can use this technology. It is not difficult to imagine how this could be utilised within the fields of design and engineering (rapid prototyping for example), but some of the medical applications are truly astounding. Experiments have been conducted with printing living cells into a gel to enable scientists to create organs and body parts. Printing with chemical compounds could allow people to create their own medications.
The scary part is this; a group of people have been printing automatic weapons and have made the plans freely available online. Thankfully, they cannot make an entire gun from printed components yet, but it is a scary thought with serious consequences.
I think the good outweighs the bad, but what do you think?