Thursday, September 6, 2012

More on 3-D printing

Amid all my rants and raves and complaints around here, there's one thing that I've consistently touted as being seriously awesome, and that's 3-D printing. I think the potential for this technology is simply mind-blowing, and that it could completely revolutionize the way we think about manufacturing and manufactured products and shipping and basically anything you associate with our "modern" economy.

Like any technology, it's taken a little while for 3-D printing to emerge from its infancy and work out the kinks, but I think (hope?) we're rapidly approaching the point where this could be a viable consumer technology.
Early desktop printers were horrible. For the price of thousands of dollars one got lo-res dot matrix printouts on paper that had tractor-feed holes punched into the margins. It wasn’t pretty, but those early models paved the way for high-resolution, low-cost laser printing.
Today’s hobby grade 3-D printers are similarly crude. They all use Fused Filament Fabrication (FFF) technology and are essentially robotic hot glue guns. Fortunately, a new generation of higher-resolution, faster, and more reliable machines are starting to come to market.
This new type of hobbyist printer use Stereolithography (SLA) technology, utilizing light instead of heat to make models. How? A high powered light source hardens a cross section of light-sensitive liquid plastic. The machine then raises the build platform a smidge and the process is repeated. It’s very dramatic — models look like they are being pulled from a puddle of goo.
For those interested in seeing what this looks like in real time (okay, time-lapse), check out this video:

Are there potential issues with this technology? Yes, most definitely, and I certainly hope that the government doesn't fall all over itself to pre-emptively restrict the usage of 3-D printers. But I think that may in fact end up happening, if only because of this:
An American gunsmith has become the first person to construct and shoot a pistol partly made out of plastic, 3D-printed parts. The creator, user HaveBlue from the AR-15 forum, has reportedly fired 200 rounds with his part-plastic pistol without any sign of wear and tear. 
HaveBlue’s custom creation is a .22-caliber pistol, formed from a 3D-printed AR-15 (M16) lower receiver, and a normal, commercial upper. In other words, the main body of the gun is plastic, while the chamber — where the bullets are actually struck — is solid metal.
So, yeah, I can see where the government might step in and try to heavily regulate the usage of these printers. A world in which an individual can print himself a gun (or a grenade, or whatever else) on a whim might make it pretty difficult to regulate the things that government likes to regulate.

But that, in my opinion, would be a significant shame. I believe that this technology has significantly more upside than downside, and I think that there are reasonable ways to limit the potential negative impacts that government might fear. We'll see, but this is one of the few recent innovations that truly gets me excited for the future of our country and the world. If we have to break some eggs to make an omelette, so be it. This stuff is just way too cool.

[Extreme Tech]

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