There has been a lot of news about 3d printing over the last year or so. The technology has been around for a number of years but it has become much cheaper recently, thus more widespread. There have been a number of innovative uses for the tech, most notable in the medical community.
For example, a researcher has created a replacement for a plaster cast by 3d printing a lightweight lattice.
On a larger scale, companies are looking to 3d print whole structures including building on the moon!
As cool as this is, I think 3d printing is still in its infancy compared to where it will go next. So where do I think the technology will go? Let’s do a deep dive in 3d printing.
There are three things I think that will change 3d printing in the near future. They are resolution, materials and electronics.
To see where this is going to go, have a look at this next picture.
This shows the two sizes of Lego you can get; Lego and Duplo. Duplo is much larger, therefore you can only build objects that are made of large pieces. These tend to be blocky (pardon the pun) and only vaguely resemble real object.
Once you switch to smaller Lego pieces you get a lot more options. The object you make can actually resemble real objects.
The objects would be even better the smaller the bricks go but then it becomes harder to work with.
3d printing right now has a certain resolution it can work at. If you look at a 3d printed object you will notice it is not smooth. You certainly could not print something highly detailed. This will change.
In the future I imagine printers will be improved to work at smaller and smaller resolutions, allowing objects to have more detail both on the surface and inside (which will become more important as we will see). Eventually they will be printing at the nano scale.
The second improvement in 3d printing will be with materials. Most people are aware of the great strides computers and smartphones are making each year but did you know that materials sciences are doing the same thing? Every day I am reading about new materials like graphene being developed that we are still figuring out everything they can do. Not only that but a whole other area of materials called composites is devoted to making materials out of combinations of other materials. This gives them properties that are more than the sum of their parts. Composite materials are widely used in aircraft now where they combine great strength with incredible lightness. A good example of this is the Boeing 787 which is over half composites.
Right now most 3d printers are limited to a type of plastic resin, which will cure once printed. While effective for certain types of structures, it doesn’t take advantage of the new material science. I think future 3d printers will have feeds of raw materials and be able to synthesize composite materials as it prints. Of course some way of binding them together would be necessary but that should be possible to figure out. So if we can do this, why can’t we just 3d print a whole 787? Good idea but we are still missing one piece.
A 787 is loaded with complex electronics and computers. These are all installed as the plane is built but are definitely discrete units. What if we could load our 3d printer with these electronic units ahead of time and have it embed them where they go? I’m sure that’s how it would work at first but as long as you are creating the structures why not build them with electronics built in? Imagine a smartphone that is literally one single part. No pieces, no assembly, just a single block of fused glass, metal and electronics. It would be both lighter and stronger than what we have today. Starting from a basic set of forms it should also be possible to customize the unit to exactly what the user wants. This will lead to wearable electronics woven into our clothing.
Of course computers are getting smaller and smaller. The reason the iPhone is the size it is is because of the display and battery, not the computer. What happens when a full computer is the size of a grain of rice? How about smaller? What is down that rabbit hole?
Once you get very tiny, cheap and long lasting computers you will be able to embed them in almost anything by 3d printing them into it. They can communicate with short range, very low cost sensors and form networks that can do any number of things. This seamless blending of materials and electronics might then lead to what is known as smart matter, also known as programmable matter. These are materials that can reshape themselves on a nano scale into whatever you want.
All of this will allow creative individuals to change the world around them like never before.
How far off is this? I’d say 10-20 years. What blows my mind, is I’m 40 now. When I am 80, it will be the year 2053. How can we possibly know what the world will be like then? Heck, the job I am doing now did not exist when I was born. My new son will have amazing tools at his disposal and I can only hope I am wise enough to teach him how to use them effectively.