More on 3-D Printing

By Andrew Maynard [1]

3D printing–and additive manufacturing more broadly–are on a roll.  The idea of creating objects by building them up layer by layer has been around for a while.  But over the past couple of years, there have been massive advances in access to low-cost, extremely sophisticated 3D technologies.

At one end of the spectum, you have devices like the $100 Peach Printer.  At the other, industrial 3D printers that are capable of making on-demand parts for jet engines and other high performance products.  And in between, printers that are enabling everyone from kids and hobbyists to entrepreneurs to make stuff that it wasn’t possible to make just a few years ago.

The technology is opening new doors to how products are made.  But it’s also potentially leading to new health risks.  Whether it’s the products of 3D printers (how do you control weapons that can be printed at-source, or ensure the safety of 3D printed car?), to the emissions from the devices (just how many 3D printers in a classroom does it take before kids are inhaling more nanoparticles and fumes than are healthy?), 3D printing raises questions about risk and safety.

Environmental Implications of Additive Manufacturing

This past October, I participated in a National Science Foundation workshop on the environmental implications of additive manufacturing.  We talked extensively about the potential health risks of 3D printing and other forms of additive manufacturing, and how these may be avoided.  But I must confess, as I learned about what is likely to be possible in the future, I found myself mulling over some of the more speculative implications of 3D printing.

There’s a saying that, in additive manufacturing, complexity is free.  Of course, nothing is totally free.  But I was particularly taken in the workshop by the relatively low investment and energy costs associated with generating incredibly complex structures using techniques such as 3D printing.  This is core to the transformative nature of additive manufacturing–it’s what fundamentally enables us to create products with processes such as 3D priniting that are far beyond the reach of more conventional manufacturing technologies.  It’s also what will potentially enable us to create devices and products that present us with truly emergent risks–just because we can make things we’ve never been able to make before.

Complexity is Cheap

There comes a point with conventional (i.e. non-additive) manufacturing where it becomes economically unfeasible to manufacture structurally complex products.  It’s just too difficult, or too expensive.  In contrast, within resolution and materials capabilities, few such limits exist with 3D printers.  A very simple 2D analogy is printing images on an inkjet printer.  With the resolution limits of the printer, it’s just as easy to print an incredibly detailed high resolution photograph as it is a black rectangle–complexity is cheap.

The same applies to 3D printing–but this time in three dimensions.  With this technology, we are at the cusp of a manufacturing revolution where we can make highly complex three dimensional products that were unattainable just a few years ago.  And by “we” I mean anyone from kids tinkering in their basements to a global corporation.

It was this transformative potential that got me speculating about what we might be able to 3D print that would be nigh impossible using non-additive technologies.  And from there, it didn’t take long to arrive at the idea of 3D printing something that is intimately dependent on three-dimensional complexity–an artificial brain!

For more on the subject of 3D printing and brain research read here.

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[1]  From a post at ieet.org

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