Saturday, March 16, 2013

Printing the Future: Challenges in the 3D-4D Digital Print Revolution

Like so many others, I am excited about the potential of 3D and now 4D printing. Writing for ZDNet, Oliver Marks states, "The fourth dimension in 4D printing refers to materials that are able to change and mutate over time when exposed to water, temperature changes and/or air to self assemble. 4D object formats will soon have API's (Application Programming Interfaces) that enable designers to define the characteristics of the materials they are made from, which are then printed using sophisticated chemical calibrations to enable specific attributes and functionality."

From the outset, 3D printing seems a powerful piece of democra-tech. For me, democratech includes new technologies that can be easily adopted/integrated into the lives of working class and middle class people to enhance quality of life and lengthen lifespans. All new technologies though bring new sets of challenges to solve. For help on that score, Jonas Bentzen penned a balanced post on the three main issues with 3D printing in the home: size, economics, and materials.

Size is a concern in terms of both the items one wishes to fabricate and the size of the printer itself. Will the garage of the future have a 3D printer and be full of raw materials? Will we desire to have large-scale printers in our homes? Will the small-end printers we are likely to have in our homes be able to produce the kind of larger size mundane items we will need? Will we want to fabricate forks, coasters, pans, etc...or go buy them at cheaper cost or with better design?

In regards to economics, Benzen elucidates: "Let's look at the economics of this: Suppose that some years from now you'll be able to get a decent 3D printer for $200. Since the technology moves at a fast pace, you'd probably have to replace it after four years, and you'd be able to sell it for $25. That's an expense of $43.75 per year. Now let's say you want to print a product once a month. You'd need raw materials for that - let's say 1 kilo at $30 per year. Of course the printer uses electricity, so let's add $5. Total yearly expense: 78.75."

It is quite likely we will see 3D-4D materials shops open in communities that have adopted these technologies. Next to the local QuickMart will be MaterialsQuick - a 21st Century hardware store. Stop in - pick up replacement parts for the printers, add-on modules, software packages, raw materials, prefabricated core materials, and ordering of speciality materials (including mix-materials fabrications).

In terms of materials, a pressing issues is that of materials sustainability. Where will these raw materials come from, be made of, and what will be the environmental impact? Solutions are needed. Will plastics be the core base material used? Do we need more plastics production?

Good news everybody! People within the industry, and across biotech, have already begun to expand past plastics into more exciting materials such as biological matter.

French surgeon and biologist Alexis Carrel
In terms of 3D/4D printing, the really mind-boggling work is with biochemistry, genetics, and synthetics...regenerative medicine: the use of cells, materials, or a mixture of both to print organs, skin, bones, and teeth. The concept dates back to 1938 in The Culture of Organs, written by Nobel Prize winner Alexis Carrel and Charles Lindbergh. Carrel did pioneering work with blood vessel graphs. The future-now is these bio-materials that can be used to help the body regenerate, materials that interact with patient's cells, materials that integrate with the patient's cells.  

Oliver Marks insightfully noted, "Some of our printing concepts are an outmoded paradigm - the real advances are sure to come in the chemistry of the materials. As Daniel Dikovskey of Stratasys explained, it's the blends of multiple materials that are an important element of the material programming interface. This form of modern alchemy that programs properties into the materials to be created is the important new paradigm. Design principles that take advantage of the mutable properties of these amazing new materials are slowly taking shape, and while today's materials are limited there is an explosion of activity and rapid advancement. Within four to five years we should see highly sophisticated materials that can be programmed and printed, the result of a flowering of collaboration in a rapidly evolving and currently open, inclusive business space."

There is of course skepticism. Writing for ZDNet about Chris Anderson's move from Wired to 3D printing, Tom Foremski opined, "Our industrial age has created a massive number of advanced materials that are essential to producing our products - 3D printers can only handle soft, easily melted materials. A home 3D printer that can create a product with multiple materials, such as ceramics and metals, hasn't been invented and won't be for many years." It might come quicker than we think if Moore's Law applies here as it has in so many other future-tech instances.

As the digital printing space explodes: issues of size, cost, materials, and sustainability will continually need to be addressed. One thing is for certain: in the next decade, 3D-4D printing will change our world quite dramatically.

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