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Some say that 3D printing will be "the next big thing" and it's hard not to agree with them when you see what a decent 3D printer can do.
From a spool of plastic fiber or a cocktail of chemicals and laser-light, a modern 3D printer can create almost any object you can conceive.
Do a little design work on a suitable CAD program, or just download the G-code for an object someone else has already designed -- plug that into your printer and "bingo!" -- a few minutes (or hour) later -- out comes a brand new object.
It's a stone-age version of the Star Trek replicator and it's here now (almost).
I wonder how long before we see online shopping for a wide range of items consist of little more than a file-download onto your "replicator".
Oh, won't the intellectual property lawyers have a field-day then!
Instead of being largely limited to software, music, books and movies -- "piracy" will then be extended to all manner of real-world objects that you can touch and feel.
But it goes much further than just illegal copying and distribution of someone else's designs for an object -- what about contraband?
When I read this story I could immediately see that lawmakers will soon be conjuring up all manner of controls, restrictions, licensing and other ways to deal with the threat that these "evil baby-killing 3D printers" might pose to society.
Imagine if a 10 year old kid picked up the files for making a sub-machine-gun or some other weapon and covertly fabricated such a device using the family's 3D printer!
Wow, that's almost as dangerous as the same kid taking a carving knife from the kitchen draw and menacing his peers. Let's ban knives too, shall we?
However, one has to ask whether, at some time in the not too distant future, 3D printing will challenge the viability of many of today's industries -- in the same way that laser printers and word-processing/publishing software has challenged the bottom-end of the printing business.
Once we have printers that can fabricate parts not just from plastics but also sintered metals and other much stronger materials -- then integrate them into a finished assembly -- what will happen to some sectors of the world's manufacturing industries?
A Chinese worker may put in a 60-hour week for a pittance in pay -- but a 3D printer will work 24/7, almost for free. What's more, with transport prices rising rapidly in response to environmental concerns and the increasing price of fuel -- how long before doing a "print" is actually cheaper than buying from some sweatshop half a world away?
With entry-level 3D printers now selling for under US$1,000 I expect that within the next decade, every house and business will have one sitting alongside the computer. Initially their capabilities will be limited but watch out, it's only a matter of time before they become as essential as your mobile phone, TV set and computer.
And if you really want to buy one right now -- here's a local(ish) source -- although I've never seen or used one of these and this isn't an endorsement or an ad.
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