If you don’t know what rapid prototyping is, it’s a method of ‘printing’ physical objects out from a computer. If you have a 3D computer model of a bottle opener, for example, you can print out a bottle opener in plastic or metal and use it to open a bottle. Or you could print out some shoes.
This technology is nothing new – product designers have been using it for more than two decades to develop ideas and make prototypes – but the cost of 3D printers has now come down a lot. The ‘Cube’ printer in the picture above is one of the first being targeted at consumers. The Cube retails at $1299 (£834) and 3D Systems, who make it, aim to bring this down to below $500 over the coming years. I spotted this, and Makerbot‘s $1,749 (£1124) ‘Replicator’ machine in an article from the BBC, covering their launch at the 2012 Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas.
The article has a section entitled “Eco-unfriendly?” stating “the mass adoption of such devices could have consequences for the environment.”. But hang on – the implications of this are a little deeper than some ABS plastic being used to print products.
There are two points I’d like to make here to challenge this concern:
1) The products we print at home are products we don’t have to make in factories.
Because you have downloaded a 3D model of a bottle opener from the internet and printed it out at home, you don’t need buy one from a shop. Don’t forget that the one from the shop has a huge number of hidden environmental impacts that you wouldn’t necessarily think about. These include pollution from shipping and trucking, mining and refining raw materials to make it, the pollution and fossil fuel use at the factory – even impacts from constructing the factory in the first place. With one printed at home, the entire traditional supply chain for manufacturing the bottle opener is redundant. If everyone printed all their own products at home, we wouldn’t need factories to make the products. We wouldn’t need ships and trucks to distribute the goods. Nor would be need shops to sell the products, packaging to protect them, or branding and advertising to sell them. Have these machines got the potential to bring about the greatest change in society that we have seen since the industrial revolution? What about factories needed to make the 3D printers? Well, we wouldn’t need them either – there is already a 3D printer that can make a copy of itself.
2) 3D printers could print with ‘waste’ material and replace our existing recycling system.
Recycling your waste is great, right? Well, yes, it’s better than dumping it in landfill, but we use a lot of energy transporting, sorting and processing materials in order to recycle them.
The virgin plastic (ABS) used for printing 3D objects is made from oil which is a finite resource. This is the main concern expressed in the BBC article. However, the machine uses an extrusion process to print the objects – much like the RD21 chair designed by Richard Cohda in 2008. Richard’s chair is made using plastic waste that is lying around in your bin. Why can’t the 3D printer use waste materials to print new objects?
3D printing could mean that you recycle your waste LOCALLY instead of mining new material out of the ground or transporting waste to China or India to recycle. 3D Printers could have ‘cartridges’ – like the different colours of ink your printer has at home – but for different types of plastic – even metal and other materials. It’s already possible to print objects in stainless steel and titanium as well as in resin, acrylic and ABS (the material lego is made from) – even glass and rubbery elastomers. There are already machines to print objects in full colour.
What if you don’t like your bottle opener or if it breaks? Just feed it back into the machine, download a different model and print a new one. If you don’t like any of the designs on offer, you can design one yourself and get a 60% royalty if other people download your design. You can do this right now on the Cubify website with a free account.
Of course I don’t seriously think that 3D printers are going to shut down all manufacturing industry worldwide. We’re a way off being able to print out an iPhone at home. But think about it: Could these technologies not significantly change how we make and distribute the objects we use?
Rather than being ‘eco-unfriendly’, 3D printers for the home could radically change the way we consume and recycle and eliminate the majority of the environment impacts of making a product. This is an exciting, fascinating and rapidly developing area that has potential beyond current thinking. I’m keen to see how it develops over the next few years.