According to Wikipedia, 3D printing is:
...a phrase used to describe the process of creating three dimensional objects from digital file using a materials printer, in a manner similar to printing images on paper. The term is most closely associated with additive manufacturing technology, where an object is created by laying down successive layers of material.The technology originated in the rapid prototyping of custom components where speed and convenience were valued over the high manufacturing costs. However, those costs have dropped dramatically over the last decade and this has led to the growing use of 3D printers in production manufacturing. Here's a recent CTV News story, focused on a Canadian example.
Virtually any raw materials can be used to manufacture components from 3D printers. For example, the February 7th, 2012 Sydney Morning Herald article "3D printing: saviour or piracy tool" discusses EOS Germany, which builds 3D printers "able to create metal objects as robust as cast parts, and often as strong as forged parts" which, at the very least, suggests new business models for the auto parts industry. The article also mentions transplanting a jaw bone produced by a 3D printer and how custom items could be printed from precious metals and other materials for a fraction of the typical cost.
In essence, virtually anything physical could be copied for use in much the same way as audio, video or other information is currently duplicated. The January 24th, 2012 ZDNet Australia article "Pirate Bay to allow real-object downloads" reports on those concerns among copyright experts and on the recent decision by the notorious file sharing website to host a public repository for the mock-up files and designs which 3D printers use as templates in order to create physical objects.
This incredible and ongoing drop in price and complexity is especially suitable for frontier environments like space which possess few existing manufacturing facilities and tend to worry less about copyright infringement. Here are a couple of quick examples:
- The February 3rd, 2012 FastCo Design article "No Joke: These Guys Created A Machine For Printing Houses On The Moon" discusses the use of a technique called "contour crafting" which is essentially a variation of the 3D printing technology, to build structures for humans on the Moon. According to the article, Moon rock is surprisingly similar to concrete and would make a suitable material for buildings.
- 3D printers are not only useful for construction projects on planetary surfaces. Made in Space, a small manufacturing start-up has even tested 3D printers in "partial" zero gravity according to this July 28th, 2011 post on the company website. The company has been profiled in a variety of media outlets including Popular Mechanics (the December 11th, 2010 article "Orbiting 3D Printers Could Print out New Space Stations") and MSNBC (the December 11th, 2010 article "Print your own space station in orbit").
- According to the January 23rd, 2012 Hosted Payloads article "DARPA Eyes Hosted Payloads to Re-Use In-Orbit Antennas," the US Department of Defense (DOD) is "seeking assistance from the space industry to address a host of technical challenges that must be overcome to salvage antennas and other components on board defunct satellites." While some of these technologies would be salvaged for direct re-use and this would be the prime driving component of this initiative, other components could certainly be collected and used as raw material for 3D printers making new components.
Expect more of these small little firms and collectives to spring up over the next little while. Among other things, they are part of our upcoming next industrial revolution.