The 3D Printing Revolution

This technology is beginning to break down the barriers between form and function, and that has huge implications.

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3D printing always has been intriguing. More recently, it has become truly useful. And in the near future, it will become increasingly controversial.

There are videos on YouTube documenting entire homes that are being printed in as little as 8 hours, priced as low as $4,000. So while there is a lot of buzz about AI eliminating jobs, 3D printing could add become another significant threat.

The big questions now revolve around just how far and how quickly this technology can be extended. At this point, there is no indication of where the limits are because no one has even approached them. The technology is becoming more refined by the day.

While printed electronics already are widely used, much of this work has been rather rudimentary. That’s beginning to change. Even though it’s unlikely that we’ll see a 3nm gate-all-around FET being printed on a 3D printer, it’s probably not out of the question that a PCB, the connecting wires, and the surrounding bells and whistles can be custom-built or chosen from a menu of options.

What’s intriguing here is that printing is beginning to break down barriers between form and function, and as that happens this technology is reaching into a variety of new markets where the possibilities are nearly endless. There was a hint of this at last week’s Maker Faire Bay Area 2018. Rather than just creating simple forms and replacement parts, designs are becoming more much more complex, and in some cases more useful. And along with that, 3D printer prices are dropping to the point where basic models are cheaper than a smart phone. Even the most advanced models cost a fraction of what they did five years ago.


Fig. 1: Printed art at Maker Faire Bay Area 2018. Photo: Linda Christensen/Semiconductor Engineering

The real workhorse of this technology is the software, which can run on a standard PC or workstation. These are the same kinds of engineering tools used to develop semiconductors. But rather than just creating components, entire systems will be printable. If this technology becomes sophisticated enough, startups can’t begin putting together much more complex and interesting technology with a raft of customizable forms. That could take design out of the hands of large systems companies and begin putting it into the hands of consumers and boutique startups.

There are examples of contact lenses with printed circuitry and unusual patterns. And clothing already is being custom-fit and designed with circuitry woven into the fabric.


Fig. 2: Printed contact lenses. Source: Smithsonian

What comes next is where this starts to become more controversial. New tools can create many new jobs for those capable of utilizing them, but they also become a way of replacing entire industries that have been built around individual pieces instead of customizable systems. And while it’s unlikely that all pieces will be replaced—at this point it’s still easier, faster and cheaper to buy a complex chip than to print one—enough pieces in the supply chain could be printed to make this technology much more threatening to a lot of people.

Combine that with AI, and suddenly this becomes a double whammy threat to multi-billion-dollar industries. The manufacturing world is changing rapidly, and 3D printing will play an increasingly important role in hurrying along that change. And while it may open the door for many new and interesting inventions, it also will close the door on entire segments of the economy that have thrived in isolation from other markets.



1 comments

realjj says:

There is a 3rd whammy that is yet to be enabled.
Full presence VR so something that feels real. Likely requires a brain-computer interface but once there, all non-essential goods start to lose value.
Imagine soda or candy in this context . Virtual, everlasting, configurable, personalized, practically free and that’s the case for a million other things.
Going out for drinks with friends won’t be with friends from same geographical area, you can go out with friends half the globe away in VR – latency is an issue with huge distances so friends from Mars are too far.
Another thing, this kind of VR allows for more freedom. You want to eat 100 pounds of caviar, go ahead it won’t make you sick. You want to fly, why not.
Maybe, likely we’ll be able to live in multiple virtual worlds at the same time and also multiple physical bodies later on. In VR we can likely alter how time is perceived too, with the brain being the limited factor for as long as the brain is not enhanced or replaced.
Anyway, non-essentials are on their way out.
We need to create abundance for shelter, food, energy, healthcare and so on. Energy is mostly solved by renewables. Healthcare is solved if immortality is enabled and we can get new bodies. There is money in solving the basic needs but more money in intelligence.
Ofc long term with AI the idea of an economy becomes futile.
Human work is the only real cost in the supply chain. Mining rights, taxes are artificial costs. Raw materials abundance is required though and honest politicians but there won’t be a need for an economy in theory. In practice, we might lose many decades to get there as people are greedy.

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