In 1984 Hewlett-Packard launched the first commercial Laser Printer at a price of $3,495 US. Along with similar devices from other manufacturers the laser printer was a device that began life as technological marvel but quickly became a device we take for granted as a piece of office furniture. Today a B&W laser printer can be picked up from your local OfficeWorks for as little a $35 with colour models from $144.
Although the true history of 3D printing can be traced back to the early 80s in many ways the technology is just emerging now into the collective conscience. Possibly most alike to the HP Laser printer of 1984 is the Replicator 2 product of Manhattan based MakerBot. This miracle of modern engineering can be purchased for $2,199 and brings 3D printing into the reach of many consumers and small businesses. For those willing to explore the DIY approach PrintrBot offers kits starting from $300 for a flat-packed 3D printer. (Read Business Week Article)
In another move towards 3D printing becoming mainstream, UPS (United Parcel Service) has just announced a trial of in-store 3D printers that would allow a customer to walk in off the street and leave with a physical version of their new idea. Alternatively a digital rendering of an object could be sent via the Internet for pickup in store. How long will it be before you are able to have a part scanned in one country and beamed for pick-up in another. UPS is not the first to offer such a service, Shapeways has done this for some time, as has Staples in Europe. The model train pictured below was printed using the Shapeways service. What makes the UPS service of interest is that this is a service offered by a courier that could in essence see the need for sending physical goods rendered obsolete. (Read Forbes Article - Popularizing 3D Prinitng)
It is worth noting that at the time of release the first laser printers were considered a threat to global currencies and a counterfeiters dream device. Similar fears exist for 3D printers with fear of all manner of copyright infringement. More newsworthy has been recent reports of downloadable plans that allow a 3D printer to output a plastic gun. Although the reality is that this is a device of very limited use, plastic guns tend to self destruct quickly, there is enough threat to these stories to cause concern. (Lateline report 3D Printer Guns)
Despite limited negatives the future for 3D printing is certainly bright. This series of TED Talks highlight some of the great breakthroughs we can expect to see in the near future, ideas that are truly worth spreading. From bespoke chemistry kits, artificial limbs and even internal organs, 3D printing is set to bring big changes to the way we think about the physical world.
By Nigel Coutts