Today, when we want to buy an object, we go visit the stores of the brands we like. If we are in a physical store, we pray they have products that satisfy our tastes. If we visit an online store, we pray that the product is really like the picture. Some stores may be large and have a great selection but basically we are limited to the stores that are around us and the inventory they carry that will fit us in case of clothes. What if, in case of food products, we are allergic to one particular ingredient?
The same way lulu provides print on demand books for anyone, 3D printers will come to the rescue. Though they are still in their infancy and have limited capabilities, 3D printers will revolutionize the way we buy things and what kind of objects are available to us anywhere.
How do they work?
3D printers take raw materials such as plastic and can create a 3D object by pasting together pieces of material to form a complex shape designed with CAD drawing program.
They used to be very expensive but with the help of enthusiasts, cheaper printers that can actually print copies of themselves are becoming available such as the RepRap project. Yes, these printers are still limited, still expensive, we can see them become an important part of our lives the same way no one predicted the cell phone or the internet would integrate so transparently our lives.
What kind of things can they do today?
- print things like statues - replicas of priceless objects or destroyed objects will be a matter of the past
- print plastic objects such as spoons or screws - imagine what you could do if extra guests showed up
- print solar panels - infrastructure in developing cultures is lacking.
- print food - not yet sophisticated, the potential exists of for mixing pre separated organic content
Why is this a good thing?
Up to now, when you wanted a product, you had to wait until the factory you wanted had made the object you needed and if the part to a car you had was not made anymore, the car would be stuck for ever.
With such approach, you could get the parts or objects you wanted immediately as long as the raw materials were available where you were. No longer would objects have to be shipped across the globe. Further, you would be able to customize the objects... how many times have you thought... I like this, but it is too big or too small? Extreme customization with immediate delivery anywhere in the globe, even in the middle of the jungle of desert may sound far fetched but it seems possible.
There would have to be an adjustment to business plans though... some companies rely on the high barrier to entry that building a factory provides to maintain artificially high prices so it would hurt their bottom line is but in the end, I believe it would be a good thing: you would not be dependent on your car manufacturer for spare parts ... and you could get competitive pricing for the same object. Further parts of the world that are overlooked because they are small markets would be able to get the same products as larger market.
Without going to massive scale printing... it could help in situations where shipping stuff is impossible like the International Space Station. Today, if a part breaks or if a new equipment is invented on earth, astronauts have to wait until a rocket goes up at prohibitive costs... with such a 3D printer... if the raw materials are there, it would be a matter of printing the object... and who knows, the raw materials may even be mined from nearby asteroids
One thing is certain, 3D printing is one way tomorrow will be a more friendly tomorrow