Part one: the power of creation

An introduction to the series

Nothing that is alive stays the same. Whether an individual, an organisation or a fruit- we either evolve (grow, ripen) or degrade (shrink, rot) – it is one of the fundamental laws of life. The quest for wisdom, strength and health inspired a spiral of ground-breaking inventions. This series takes a closer look at technogenic breakthroughs that define our age; deemed pure science fiction a mere quarter of a century ago, common today and probably archaic by the end of the decade.

The twentieth century has been a time of revolutionary advances. Usually born in military labs, inventions soon found their way into civilian markets and, thus, our lives: electrification and water supply, automobile, airplane and spacecraft, electronics, radio, television, telephone and Internet, laser and nuclear technologies- these are just some of the achievements of the 20th century. The first of my notes is on technology that creates something out of nothing: 3D printing.

3D printing in a nutshell

In a nutshell, 3D printing works as follows. You use appropriate software to design the object you would like to create. Then you press print and a machine, either a reasonably small box on your desk (for a figurine) or an industrial size device (for an aircraft part) builds it. Not unlike traditional printing, the objects are built by adding materials, one layer at a time. The Economist compares the industry to computing in the late 1970s, describing it as “the preserve of hobbyists and workers in a few academic and industrial niches.”  However, very much like computing, 3D printing will find its way into the mass market, once it becomes more advanced and affordable. Pioneered in 1986, the 3D printing industry made an evolutionary jump in 2003.

The price

In 2003 the engineers at Berkeley could create working prototypes with movable mechanical parts. In 2007, a $40,000 Z Corp Z450 colour 3D printer could create a moving colour model in a few hours. Even the horrendous look and messy process aside, the price made sure the printers were mostly bought for business. Just a year later, however, Z Corp was offering the basic ZPrinter 310 for under $20,000 and 3D Systems, the pioneer of the industry, was developing a sub-$10,000 machine while Desktop Factory were working on a $4,995 one. Today, “the tinkerers” at Robosavvy offer Thing-o-Matic, a reasonably small desktop 3D printer, for just under £900. It may not be able to build complex objects but the price and the size make it an affordable gadget many can afford.

The progress

In the age of rapid technologic advances, I accept the existence of gadgets doing incredible things without much awe. Drones that sense human breathing through reinforced concrete? Why not- Hollywood has taught us that everything is likely to be possible. Still, a 3D food printer sounds extravagantly futuristic. Nevertheless, it is whirling and “cooking” at the French Culinary Institute in Manhattan as I type. How long will it take you to buy one is probably a question of no more than a few years. LA-based Contour Crafting has built a machine that could print houses. Recently, a few media outlets had to issue a statement calling reports of kidney printing “inaccurate.” No breakthrough there apart from the fact that some reporters believed printing living biocompatible organs to be at all possible.

What is so revolutionary about 3D printing? After all, we have been baking cakes, building houses and making towel hangers for quite some time now. The effect the technology will have on our lives can be compared with the invention of a wheel, a steam engine or a computer- it will change manufacturing as we know it.
The ability to create highly customised products at minimal extra cost will diminish the importance of the economy of scale. Entry barriers to various industries will shrink- visionaries will not need whopping start-up capital and factories to consummate their ideas. In a decade people may be able to download a pancetta-wrapped tuna with potato-ramp purée, a white chiffon box-pleated skirt or the latest iPhone off iTunes. And that would be something quite revolutionary indeed.

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