3D printing: The technology that changes everything


By Hod Lipson

We are smack bang in the middle of a second industrial revolution.

3D printing, or “additive manufacturing” as it is more properly known, is about to transform every single aspect of our lives.

Machines today can print objects out of almost any material – from nylon to glass, from chocolate to titanium – and with any complex geometry.

This is transforming not just engineering, but many other fields, including education, archaeology, bio-printing, and even food printing. Look online and you will see thousands
of objects ready to be printed on demand, from custom-shaped hearing aids to authentic-looking replicas of ancient cuneiform tablets.

More importantly, soon anyone will be able to make complex products quickly and cheaply, something that will democratise innovation and unleash human creativity.

The next stage of this journey, which we are just beginning to experience, is control over the composition of such printed – going beyond shaping geometry, to shaping the internal structure of materials – with unprecedented fidelity.

Forget the traditional limitations imposed by conventional manufacturing, in which each part is made of a single material. Instead, we are talking about specifying microstructure with micrometer-scale precision.

We are making materials with materials, and embedding and weaving multiple materials into complex patterns.

We can print hard and soft materials in patterns that create bizarre and new structural behaviours, like materials that expand laterally when pulled longitudinally.

This flexibility means you will soon be able to print a custom tennis racket that cleverly compensates for your unique weaknesses, or a replacement spinal-disc implant exactly tailored for your bad back.

The third and final episode of this journey, of which we have only seen the early signs so far, is the control over behaviour.

Here we will go beyond controlling just the shape of matter and its composition. We will then be able to program these materials to function in arbitrary ways – to sense and react, to compute and behave – moving from an object’s mechanical functionality to controlling how it processes information and energy as well.

When this day arrives, you will be able to print virtually anything – from a mobile phone to a robot that will walk out of the printer, batteries included.

But that robot will not look at all like today’s robots, because it will not be limited by the constraints imposed by conventional manufacturing.

The ability to construct systems like this will create a new paradigm of engineering, one that is not unlike biology.

If humans distinguished themselves from their evolutionary ancestors by making tools, then additive manufacturing represents the ultimate tool – it will transform human culture in ways we can hardly anticipate.

*Hod Lipson is an associate professor at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. He has pioneered evolutionary robotics and AI, and has co-authored a report for the US government on 3D printing.


Article courtesy of New Scientist