I’ve been looking into and thinking about 3D printing a lot recently and want to record some of the information I’ve come across. Let’s start off with this excellent TED talk on 3D printing that was filmed in November.

Last week it was announced that a 83-year old woman received a new jaw thanks to 3D printing in the world of biotechnology. Here’s the basics:

The University of Hasselt (Belgium) announced today that Belgian and Dutch scientists have successfully replacing a lower jaw with a 3D printed model for a 83 year-old woman. According to the researchers, It is the first custom-made implant in the world to replace an entire lower jaw.

The lower jaw of the elderly woman was badly infected and needed to be removed. Considering the age of the patient, a “classical” microsurgical reconstructive surgery takes too long time and can be risky. Therefore a tailor-made implant is the best choice.

Normally it takes a few days to produce a custom implant, but with 3D printing technology it takes only a few hours.

Sounds great doesn’t it? Hang on there, we can’t get our hopes up yet.

Over at Technology Review they had a little public debate about whether or not the future of 3D printing will be similar to the hype and subsequent failure to live up to said hype that virtual reality had. Both sides of the debate are worth reading in their entirety.

The anti-3D printing piece had some good points, particularly when it comes to how the machines actually work:

Let’s start with the mechanism. Most 3-D printers lay down thin layers of extruded plastic. That’s great for creating cheap plastic toys with a limited spatial resolution. But printing your Mii or customizing an iPhone case isn’t the same thing as firing ceramics in a kiln or smelting metal or mixing lime with sand at high temperatures to produce glass—unless you’d like everything that’s currently made from those substances to be replaced with plastic, and there are countless environmental, health, and durability reasons you don’t.

Fine, but we can also print human organs and it looks like we maybe able to do more in the near future (like actually be able to use them). Here’s a TED talk on that very issue:

I feel that the fellow that wrote the TR piece is missing (amongst other things like the fact that 3D printers are real already) the bigger picture of the state of 3D printing and essentially ignores the history of manufacturing. 3D printing is just as much manufacturing and industrial issue as it is a digital one. This is where the rebuttal in Technology Review comes in:

It’s also important not to confuse 3-D printing & desktop-class fabrication. These aren’t the same thing. There is more to desktop manufacturing than 3-D printers. A well-appointed contemporary maker workshop has working CNC mills, lathes, and laser cutters. A well-appointed design studio has the tools to make and finish prototypes that look very nice indeed. Aside from the 3-D printer, none of these tools are terribly science-fictional; they’re well-established technologies that happen to be getting cheaper from year to year.

Something interesting happens when the cost of tooling-up falls. There comes a point where your production runs are small enough that the economies of scale that justify container ships from China stop working. There comes a point where making new things isn’t a capital investment but simply a marginal one. Fab shops are already popping up, just like print shops did.

So what can we make of all of this?

3D printing is pretty awesome and the more we do to develop this technology the better off we’ll arguably be as we can potentially build organs and phones from scratch. This technology is still years away from being anything close to the replicators in Star Trek.

It’s worth following this technology has it develops as the ramifications of 3D printing can be huge: from being able to build our own board game pieces to entirely destabilizing our current production methods. There’ll be no need to employ people in some factories if we can build half of our products in our own homes. In a way, 3D printing is almost Marxist because it’s literally giving the power of production to the people.