Soon most 3D prints will be production tools or end-use components. Exactly when rapid prototyping will become a minority additive manufacturing application is inevitably difficult to predict. This said, many people I’ve spoken to put the date around 2020.
A chasm clearly exists between current additive manufacturing technologies and ‘local digital manufacturing’ (LDM) hardware capable of replicating many products on demand. Yet given the potential environmental and economic benefits, we should not dismiss the prospect of LDM outright. We hence need to keep abreast of those technologies that may be involved.
3D printers are not the only mechanisms for transforming digital models into physical things. Not least, life itself additively turns digital data into complex 3D forms. In 2010, a new point-and-click science called synthetic biology was used to create the first synthetic bacterium, and since that time the programming of microorganisms as productive mechanisms has proceeded apace. For example, at KAIST in Korea, synthetic biology has been used to directly produce the bioplastic PLA from a starch feedstock. One day soon, it may therefore be possible to ferment 3D printing filament from a locally grown raw material like algae.
More fundamentally, synthetic biology could transform 3D printing processes. Already bioprinters like Organovo’s Novogen MMX output cell aggregates that naturally rearrange and fuse together after printout. At present, bioprinting involves the creation of living tissue for medical purposes. But future hardware could output an aggregate of synthetic cells that would fuse and die into a material akin to wood, coral or human bone.
Nanotechnology will also increasingly converge with 3D printing, with nanocomposite filaments already on the market. These mix carbon nanotubes or graphene with a conventional polymer, and in time could allow the printout of working electronic devices.
Nanoscale 3D printing processes, such as two-photon polymerization (2PP) are additionally being developed, and in common withsynthetic biology may in future control not just the form, but also the material composition of those objects we locally fabricate. Pioneer Eric Drexler has long predicted the emergence of atomically precise manufacturing (APM) hardware able to assemble complex products from basic feedstocks. While today nanotech mainly involves ‘top down’ processes for making microchips or nanocomposites, developments in areas including protein engineering do suggest that we may one day routinely manufacture on the nanoscale. Though I believe that this will only become practical when 3D printing, synthetic biology and nanotechnology fully converge.
In the last 30 years we have built a new economy based on machines called microprocessors that manipulate information. In the next three decades, the possibility exists to build a new economy based on microfabricators that will combine 3D printing with synthetic biology and nanotechnology in order to manipulate the physical world. In comparison to future microfabricators, today’s 3D printers are more akin to vacuum tubes than microprocessors. But that does not mean they cannot and will not be created.