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A Different Way Of Looking at the Impact of 3-D Printing

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From the printing press to the 3-D printer, printing devices throughout history have had enormous impacts on society.

“3-D printing? Maybe trinkets, but how in hell can you print a house?”

“I don’t know, but the Chinese just printed 10 of them in a single day!”

“What? Come on. How could they do that?”

“I don’t know, read the article. And an outfit is going to 3-D print an entire car in just one day at the International Manufacturing & Technology Show in Chicago this September — and, according to the article, it will be ‘massively customizable.’ You want one seat? Or five seats? Electric or gas drive? Instead of having Detroit decide what options you get, you can decide on everything and then hit ‘Print.’ Presto, you’ve got a personalized car!”

Sound like something out of a science fiction story? It certainly did to me, even after I saw the mind-blowing (at the time) video of the 3-D printing of a wrench and then of a trachea that could actually be put into a human being.

Rapidly Advancing Technology

I wasn’t the only one who had difficulty with the concept of three-dimensional objects being “printed” – and being printed with movable parts. In discussing this at my local Barnes and Noble with some retired IBM engineers, I found that they were even more skeptical than me as they had not seen the videos. One of them, a very bright person who had worked for years in the artificial intelligence field (and had developed the first computer analysis of an EKG feed that was accepted as medically sound), had restricted his computer use since retirement to a specific business application, game-playing (not online) and building PCs – no social media and no keeping up to date with such developments as 3-D printing.


When we first began to discuss 3-D printing, he wasn’t aware that the objects produced could have color other than the original or could have usable moving parts. When told about the wrench and then the building of houses, he said, “that’s amazing” — and then, when he read the beginning of “The Big Dummies Guide to 3D Printing,” he said, “It’s not only amazing; it’s a game changer” — as I wrote earlier, he’s very smart! He recognized immediately that this innovation has the potential to have an earth-shaking impact on the manufacturing and construction industries.

Revolution in Manufacturing

To get my mind around any of this, I realized that I had to change not only my understanding of printing as a two-dimensional-only process but to re-evaluate the whole processes of communication and manufacturing.

We have always understood the process of product development as the conception of a product by a human being followed by the design document (drawing or writing) followed by the specification for the manufacturing of the product followed possibly by the production of a prototype and then the actual manufacturing of the product. This whole process may be both time consuming and expensive.

To review the steps:

  • Idea
  • Design
  • Manufacturing specification
  • Manufacturing
  • Product

However, it might be helpful if we simply looked at the process as:

  • Idea
  • Design
  • Necessary technology
  • Product

If we look at it this way, all innovation back to the printing press (and even beyond) is the same conceptually – only the technology changes. Simply, the technology is only what turns the idea and design into a product. As the technology becomes even more powerful (and this is now a constant geometric increase), we will see more and more developments that appear to be science fiction.

The Beginnings of Printing

This process, using available technology, translates an idea into a product. As soon as our earliest ancestors realized the need to communicate, they developed language and began to draw pictures and diagrams. At some point thereafter, the first written languages appeared and the learned class, scribes and monks, began to laboriously write down the stories that had been verbally passed along. Suddenly, we had ideas translated through this new technology, “writing,” into books that could be kept and read by later scholars.

The next breakthrough came around 1455, when Johannes Gutenberg had reliable and effective printing presses in use. This development slowly led to mass education as anyone who could learn to read could gather the knowledge that had previously only been available to monks and scholars.

With the advent of the printing press, the way humans learned changed. In John Naughton’s 2012 “From Gutenberg to Zuckerberg: Disruptive Innovation in the Age of the Internet” (highly recommended), he first quotes Neil Postman, in his 1996 “The Disappearance of Childhood,” as pointing out that before printing, all human communication occurred in a social context and then writing:

    “But with the printed book, another tradition began: the isolated reader and his private eye. Orality became muted and the reader and his response became separated from a social context. The reader retired within his own mind and, from the sixteenth century to the present, what most readers have required of others is their absence or, if not that, their silence. In reading, both the writer and the reader enter into a conspiracy of sorts against social presence and consciousness.”

Naughton then exposes us to Maryanne Wolf who, in her 2008 “Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain,” points out that, in the few thousand years of reading, this invention (reading) “changed the way our brains are organized which in turn altered the way our species evolved.” Naughton says that her view is supported by recent findings of neuroscientists who have discovered “the astonishing plasticity of the brain,” which modifies the way it works each time a new skill is developed. He quotes Wolf further, saying, “Reading can be learned only because of the brain’s plastic design and, when reading takes place, that individual brain is changed forever, both physiologically and intellectually.”

So, in short, we have the same movement of idea to product, but now it is a new technology supporting it – printing – and we call the unit that produces the final product a “printer,” and the printer produces two-dimensional output because the words (and, later, pictures) are also two-dimensional.

Evolution of Technology

Over the centuries, we have made incremental progress in going from idea to production through advances in technology (typewriter, word processing, high-speed printers and self publishing), but it has still been the same process of converting ideas to two-dimensional output.

Now, however, we have developed technology to the level that we can convert ideas involving three-dimensional products directly to the products themselves. Because we have called the device that actually produces the product for hundreds of years a “printer,” we now call the device that produces the new type of product a “3-D printer.”

There is much to learn about this new technology, even while continuing to enhance it. There are many output media (similar to paper with a two-dimensional printer) that can be used -from a Styrofoam-type material to metals – and the development of the technology will be rapid.

There are also overriding legal issues that must be dealt with. A major issue is copyright (see “The next Napster? Copyright questions as 3-D printing comes of age“). For an item to be 3-D printed, there must be a specification to the printer. This specification can come in two main sources:

  • The scanning of an object, similar to the printing of the wrench referenced above. The scanning is really the development of a specification from the original item – a “reverse engineering” of the original item. This scanning may be done by an MRI or any other scanner able to render a complete specification.
  • The total or partial development of the specification using a computer design program (such as AutoCAD) to either produce the specification from scratch or to modify a previously scanned specification or one that had been developed earlier from scratch.

One can only dream of the lawsuits that will ensue and the research necessary to determine items that might be violating copyright. As my engineer friend said, this really is a game changer.

Our challenge is to write, understand and administer the rules of the new game and deal with its ramifications. This includes the negatives, such as the elimination of many, many manufacturing and construction jobs, as well as the positives, such as the ability to turn ideas into products at speeds never before thought of, the probable cost-reduction in the products now produced in this manner, the possibility of providing shelter to impoverished areas or those affected by natural disasters … the list goes on and on. As Dorothy in the “Wizard of Oz” once said, I have a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.


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John F. McMullen

John F. McMullen lives with his wife, Barbara, in Jefferson Valley, New York, in a converted barn full of pets (dog, cats, and turtles) and books. He has been involved in technology for more than 40 years and has written more than 1,500 articles, columns and reviews about it for major publications. He is a professor at Purchase College and has previously taught at Monroe College, Marist College and the New School for Social Research. MucMullen has a wealth of experience in both technology and in writing for publication. He has worked as a programmer, analyst, manager and director of…