The past, present and future of 3-D printing

August 24, 2011

Carl Bass is president and chief executive officer of Autodesk, Inc. Autodesk specializes in 3-D design, engineering and entertainment software. Coverage of 3-D printing has been heating up as the technology becomes more affordable. We asked Bass five questions about the past, present and future of 3-D printing as part of our ongoing series, Five Questions.

1. What’s all the fuss about 3-D printing?

There is something magical about seeing your design materialize in 3-D. This allure has allowed 3-D printing to fuel the public’s imagination. But, beyond the wonder, is a transformative technology that is changing the way we think about manufacturing. Already today we’re working with people who are printing fully functional mechanical components, prosthetic limbs, and even nano-scale structures made out of DNA. Although the technology is being used mostly for prototypes, its use is likely to grow as the usability and economics make more sense.

2. How do you anticipate 3-D printing will affect our lives?

It used to be that a cobbler would make a pair of shoes as a single act of design and craftsmanship. Then, starting around the 1860’s, you would buy your shoes from a company that designed several models and made each in mass quantities. When you bought the shoe you also got the design that was baked into it. Now, imagine that we have local or personal 3-D printing. You might browse a company’s Web site for a shoe design you really like, or even better, one that was modified according to a 3-D scan of your foot and the sports you play. You buy the design, download the 3-D file, and send that to a 3-D printer down the street to be manufactured. At the end of the process, you end up with a unique pair of shoes that you had a hand in designing.

We can separate the design of a product from its manufacture for the first time in history, because all of the information necessary to print that object is built into the design. But the impact of 3-D printing will not be limited to consumer products. We’ll see its influence in all aspects of the marketplace — from nanotechnology to the building of major infrastructure.

3. What effect will 3-D printing have on the global labor market? Is it the beginning of the end for manual labor?

There are many technologies changing the nature of manufacturing and the role of manual labor. Three dimensional printing is just one of them. Computer-controlled machines (CNC), water and laser cutters and robotic assembly are radically changing the way products are built. The ability to produce a small number high quality items and sell them at reasonable prices is causing an enormous economic disruption. In it, you can see the future of American manufacturing.

In a computerized manufacturing process like 3-D printing, complexity and quality are free, and there is little economy of scale. The 3-D printer, just like a traditional printer, is not constrained by an object’s complexity. A traditional paper printer can print a circle or a copy of the Mona Lisa with equal ease. The same rule applies to a 3-D printer. Also, a 3-D printer doesn’t really care how many units you need. The first one costs and takes as long to print as the 100th. Thanks to these trends, 3-D printing is empowering innovation for many businesses that rely on agility and scalability. This technology has allowed the small medical products design company Bespoke Innovations to affordably fabricate customized medical devices such as prosthetic limbs. Thanks to 3-D printing, Nervous System, another small business, can focus its resources on designing limited edition jewelry, since it can produce only the products they need.

And 3-D printing is scalable. If a company needs to produce more of a product than their one printer can handle, they can send their 3-D digital designs to a service bureau that has multiple 3-D printers available, allowing a company to increase its capacity with no capital outlay and no risk. It can just as easily scale back or change its designs to follow the whims of fashion since there’s no tooling or process changes required. This technological democratization is allowing large numbers of dynamic, innovative companies to enter markets that were previously reserved for larger, wealthier corporations

But that’s not to say there won’t be a role for manual labor. A lot depends on the cost of labor compared to these new technologies. For example, 3-D printing is going to be very relevant in the developing world. There will be instances of highly manual manufacturing processes being replaced by digital manufacturing. But it will also bring more complexity and technology to these regions. Far-flung villages will be able to print advanced products like solar panels, or replacement parts for farm equipment without relying on the economies and transportation systems of more developed regions and nations. There’s a very local, communal part to this technology, which I find fascinating.

4. What happens when everyone has a 3-D printer in their homes?

This is already happening. For the price of a microwave, anyone can buy a small 3-D printer and run it in their own home. People do the craziest things with them: from printing 3-D bobbleheads of themselves, to edible 3-D chocolates, to starting up new businesses. Like other home electronics, prices are coming down every year, the printers are becoming easier and more reliable to use, and they’re able to print an increasing assortment of materials. These range from ABS plastic, to chocolate, to cornstarch-based sustainable plastics and even metals.

Having this capability on hand has also led to an explosion in design creativity. This period is comparable to the advent of desktop publishing and the explosion of typographic creativity that followed. That’s why we’re developing an ecosystem of tools, services and communities around personal fabrication specifically tailored to everyday people, makers and creative professionals to help them bring their ideas to life. Placing a 3-D modeling tool on the iPad or a multi-touch tablet device lets people adjust 3-D models in a way that’s easily understood. Then, they can either send it to their own 3-D printer, or connect with a service bureau like Ponoko and have their creation fabricated and sent to them.

However, similar to previous technologies that transitioned from professionals to ever-day consumers, what happens next isn’t necessarily obvious from where we stand today. Twenty years ago, most of us would not have guessed that making a restaurant reservation and telling 300 of your closest friends where you were going to eat, on your phone while in an airplane, would be commonplace. It will be exciting to see what people do as the barriers to this type of creativity are lowered.

5. How can this new technology help us manufacture more sustainably?

This is rarely talked about, and digital manufacturing will have a significant impact on sustainability. 3-D printing will eliminate the need to ship physical materials around the world, since all we will need are digital models in order to begin production. Many of the scenarios that take advantage of digital manufacturing are local to the end consumer. Think of the shoe example from before. There’s nearly no transportation cost, except getting the raw material to the printer, and you going down the street to pick up your new shoes. Your new shoes will be more sustainable for two more reasons: There is zero waste, since, a mono-material shoe is very easy to recycle, and the material itself will be more sustainably produced. You could melt it down and pour it back into the printer. What’s more, because you had the ability to modify and personalize the design, you are much more likely to own the shoes for a longer period of time, which makes them inherently more sustainable.

Imagine a different scenario where you could manufacture all of the components of a house from basic materials brought to the site. Again, a tremendous reduction in transport, which equals less fuel, less congestion, and fewer trucks and ships, to name a few of the potential resource and cost savings. Also, dramatically less waste, since there is no need to cut down that 8 foot two-by-four to 7 feet and 6 inches. You could just “print” the length you needed, or better yet, you could print an entire wall from the ground up, complete with structures and functions that are much more sophisticated than is currently available. Take, for example, University of Southern California Professor Behrokh Khoshnevis. He is printing buildings out of concrete at USC. Meanwhile, Ginger Krieg Dosier at the American University of Sharjah is growing building materials biologically.

Like many technologies, 3-D printing is an overnight success that took more than 20 years to develop. But now that the technology is on this exponential curve, the pace of innovation is accelerating. We can expect to see advancements in the materials, speed and the cost of printing. But rather than just focusing on improving the technology that exists, people are bringing radical ideas to the table all the time. Markus Kayser has built a prototype 3-D printer that works by melting sand in the desert using the heat of the sun. Schuyler St. Leger is a 10-year-old who has built his own 3-D printer and is designing and printing his own toys. Dr. Anthony Atala has even printed a human kidney.

But as amazing as these current technologies sound, we have just begun to lay the foundation for a post-industrial future of manufacturing. Digital manufacturing and 3-D printing specifically -- when taken together with what traditional manufacturing does well -- will allow us to tackle new challenges, and bring the benefits to people from the largest cities to the farthest villages.

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