Personal Fabrication and Torrented Objects

3D scanning and printing are quickly becoming near future certainties. The advent of cheap 3D scanning and printing, along with cheap data transfer means that we will soon be able to share physical objects digitally as easily as we do music, movies and books. This is going to change more than we can imagine.

The easy analogy for understanding 3D printing and scanning is the obvious one; 2d –or conventional– printers and scanners are the predecessors of a far more exciting set of technology that is coming to consumer space very soon. Instead of scanning flat paper, we will be able to scan objects in 3 dimensions. Instead of printing an image, we will be able to replicate an object as an object. In between we will be able to manipulate objects just as we edit documents and alter photographs.

3D scanning can already be done with consumer webcams.

In a recent article from British Columbia’s The Tyee, “The Replicator, No Longer a Star Trek Dream“, great care was taken to outline the ways 3D printing is already widely in use and where it may take us.

You remember the replicator — the one that provided Captain Picard with his cup of “tea, Earl Grey, hot,” with a simple verbal prompt? It might sound like jet-age fantasy, but Gershenfeld was absolutely serious with his reference.

For Gershenfeld — director of the Center for Bits and Atoms, a think-tank at MIT — the digital age is a low-tech side-road on the way to the real future, a future where building materials think and self-replicate and the distinction between the digital and the physical becomes hopelessly blurred. …

Three-dimensional (3D) printing allows a user to make, or print, anything they can design. This technology can produce functional prototypes, concept models and even end-use parts.

The 3D printing process is much like traditional inkjet printing. But instead of the printhead spraying ink, it extrudes microscopic layers of a plastic that has been heated to a pliable state. Before all of that happens, though, a user designs their object on a computer using 3D modeling software. Once the design is complete the information is sent to the 3D printer and then production begins.

Although the technology has yet to receive widespread attention from the mainstream media, 3D printing has been in use for more than 20 years. Wohlers Associates, a Colorado-based market research firm, says there are more than 25,000 of the machines in use worldwide. And nearly half of that number have been sold in the last two years alone.

Printing materials will not be limited to plastic. As the article later relates, we may even see printed organs ready for transplant in the coming decades.

So what if machines could harness your body’s natural ability to regulate and repair itself? What if that meant medical patients needing procedures, like heart transplants, could avoid wait times for donations? The future of fabrication could answer those questions with organ printing.

“This is a really young field, where you use a 3-D printer to make a biological structure,” says Dr. Gabor Forgacs, a professor at the University of Missouri. “Eventually the idea is that this printing process will lead to replacement organs. It may sound like science fiction, but it really isn’t.”

Science fiction hasn’t been ignoring the fact that 3D printing is already with us. New York Times bestselling author Cory Doctorow used 3D printing’s potential for sparking immense economic and social change as a central metaphor for the dot com boom and bust in his novel Makers. One reader involved in 3D printing actually replicated the novel’s cover in 3D in “13 hours and 7 minutes”. Cyberpunk shaper Bruce Sterling’s novella The Kiosk explores the impact 3D printing might have on impoverished communities. Sterling proposed that 3D printing may be more environmentally friendly than most production if the printing is done with biodegradable source material. (Makers is available as a free ebook and The Kiosk is available in a recent StarShipSofa podcast, also for free.)

Prices for desktop 3D printing are still well beyond the budgets of all but the richest of us, approaching $15,000, but it will decrease in cost, as most technology does, and there is already a community of piracy that is taking root, which may do for 3D printing what it has done for the markets for digital music, books and video: make it more profitable. Pirates of objects have already established ways to freely distribute objects as digital files.

Personally, what excites me is not access to more stuff, but rather being able to be freed from many objects. Imagine being able to have a near-exact copy of any keepsake or important object that most of the time just takes up space. If I can scan a dear object and keep it in my pocket or e-mail account as a file, there is a lot of freedom to be had while retaining most or all of the physical object’s value. If I can print it in minutes, use it in countless ways and share it instantly with any number of friends and family over distance, it is much more valuable than a single static object.

For more insight into 3D printing and fabrication, take a look at “Personal Fabrication for Dummies” and Wired’s snappy “Personal Fabrication on Demand“.

Update: New 3D printing articles keep coming out. “In the Next Industrial Revolution, Atoms Are the New Bits” is Wired’s latest piece on fabbing and 3D printing.

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