3D Printing Has a Lot to Look Forward to in 2013: The Physible and Beyond


For the year of 2012, we’ve been looking at what’s been going on in the realm of 3D printing—that last-mile for enterprise and consumers to prototype or print their own “things.” Right now, the industry is relegated to the fringe of expectation but sits right on the cusp of becoming the next-big-thing for providing not just better capabilities for producing custom machined parts (already developed by metal cutting robots) but also the retail capability of producing toys on-demand.

We can look to the MakerBot “Replicator” and its brethren to see some amazing uses that 3D printers can already have for consumers. The ability to cast from hot plastic many different objects at fractions of the cost that it would take to have it molded in a factory, packaged, and then shipped to a store to be bought.

3D printing for industrial prototyping on the rise

At the enterprise level, 3D printers have a huge benefit for rapid prototyping. Often 3D models are produce for new tools or parts for upcoming cars, jets, or other mechanical features, but the development team needs to wait for the machine shop to produce the item—either by cutting or casting it. However, with a 3D printer and the proper materials, it might be possible to produce a lower grade version of the part or tool to check its mechanical properties before needing to go to the machine shop to get a prototype in the expected material. As a result, it would save both time and costs when preparing the initial stages of a prototype part or tool.

According to Abe Reichental of US-based 3D Systems says that thousands of companies around the world have successfully adapted 3D printing for prototyping and testing. As well as aerospace who use it for parts for aircraft such as the F-18 or the automotive industry who use 3D printed parts for replacement parts for cars.

Although we’re not quite at the point where industrial 3D printers can use materials strong enough to deal with serious pressures or stresses; many parts can be created for molding or stand offs in strange spaces on demand, reducing the reliance on needing a special part machined or shipped.

The physible and its disruptive effect on the retail industry

Already we’ve seen numerous avenues for 3D printing to enter into toymaking and the production of miniatures. The best place to see this effect is amid gamers—those who play games that actually use miniatures on a game board and thus require lots of fiddly hobby work; as well as video game players who become attached to their online avatars and want a memento to remember their characters.

This is where the concept of the physible may come into play—a 3D definition file that describes a 3D printable object for a consumer- (or industrial-) level printer that could then produce the object. As a file, a physible would be easily transferred over the Internet or BitTorrent or any other protocol, downloaded into a machine, and then printed (physible Pirate Bay pirate ship).

We’ve seen this technology predicted by science fiction in Star Trek’s replicator to Neal Stephensons’s feed/seed from Diamond Age. The idea that one day people would be able to sit down at a device the size of a microwave, pour in a compound in the top, hit a few buttons, and then wait while a product is produced is potentially one of the hopes and dreams of many geeks looking for a society that can produce objects on-demand in the home. (Although chances are we’ll see these devices arrive first at supermarkets or large toy stores before they’re common in homes.)

3D printers cannot yet paint miniatures, but producing them from 3D files is a simple act. Just look at some of the amazing work that can be made at Shapeway’s blog printed and hand painted by TurtleWorks. No doubt, eventually 3D printers will come with the ability to paint objects they’ve printed (the technology for this is already extant) but part of the fun of being a miniature hobbyist is painting your own set—but I can just imagine how this might change the toy industry.

Copyright will loom large on the 2013 horizon for 3D printers and physibles

The obvious disruptive effect that 3D printing will have on retail and toys (and even parts/tools in general) will probably raise the ire of those who make their money off producing toys, parts, and tools—respectively, intellectual property is going to come into play in one way or another. Keep in mind, that if I have a 3D printer at home nothing really stops me from finding a physible for a 6” Mickey Mouse statue and printing it for my own enjoyment.

This immediately raises the thought that 3D printers will not just be the vanguard of the physible for personal use—but also the stalking horse for a new type of piracy.

Also, we’ve already seen a number of concerns raised about how a 3D printer can be used to print guns—unsurprisingly deadly weapons are objects (and tools) and they’re made of parts that can be machined and as a result, they can also be printed using a 3D printer. However, nobody has successfully made an entire gun using a 3D printer due to materials science stresses in the common prototypes that exist today…

But it was enough that the 3D printer company Stratasys repossessed their uPrint SE 3D printer from Cody Wilson, a law student at the University of Texas at Austin, who was attempting to use it in a project to make the first 3D printed firearm. Unwilling to be connected to the first person to successfully print a gun, they felt it was wise to withdraw their equipment from him before he showed it could be done. Of course, we might as well acknowledge that if we can print a gun, we can also print any variety of other awesome things such as piston barrels for car engines, high pressure joints and valves for manufacturing, and the like.

As 3D printing technology gains a foothold in the industry, and eventually moves into the retail sphere, we will see a number of moral panics arise not just from the general public misunderstanding its use—but also from the copyright industry as they realize that people will suddenly have yet-another-product capable of reproducing something that used to be only the purview of a particular class of artisans.

We’re all looking forward to the year the 3D printer might make its big splash in 2013.