Forget guns, let's dream of 3D cakes2016/07/13
You can 3D print a gun. You can 3D print a car. You can 3D print a kidney. Honestly, you can. It just might be a whole lot more trouble than it's worth.
3D printing and successfully firing a gun, for instance, has been done by a rather focused chap called Cody Wilson in, unsurprisingly, Texas. However, even he would probably admit that almost all the other ways of getting a gun you can think of are cheaper, quicker and safer. You don't 3D print a gun as a convenient way to get a gun, you do it to make a point about 3D printing, or about guns.
If Manchester police do eventually find someone trying to print guns – it was reported last week that officers thought they had uncovered "homemade" gun parts – they're also likely to find someone who's blown their own hand off. Right now, today, you can buy a 3D printer on the high street for around £700. It'll make all sorts of objects for you. Criminals already use these sorts of things to make cases for card skimmers to go on bank machines. This does not mean making guns has suddenly become as easy as popping some Smith & Wesson patented GunMix in the microwave.
The car industry has been 3D printing parts for years. They call it rapid prototyping because that's what it's good for – making quick prototypes of new designs. It's a long way, though, from being able to compete with the decades of ingenuity, capital and resources thrown into regular manufacturing. Ordinary factories are brilliantly efficient ways to make many copies of the same thing. So, though the car you're driving was probably designed and tested with some 3D printing somewhere in the mix, you won't be downloading and printing a new hatchback any time soon.
On the other hand, 3D printing organs, such as kidneys, is genuinely exciting and revolutionary stuff for healthcare. Do a quick Google and you'll find a video of a kidney printing experiment and an early beneficiary of that technology – someone whose bladder was grown in the lab from living cells. Printing with cartilage or printing custom prosthetic limbs, these things are proper non-sensational uses for this technology.
Those who scoff at these technologies today will be grateful when they get a custom-printed hip from their local hospital in a few years' time.
3D printing, you see, is not a single, homogenous technology. It's many different things. It can be extraordinary and banal. Right now it's having its popular consciousness moment and all sorts of myths and cliches are popping up. The first two you'll probably encounter are these: the comparison with the way paper printers got cheap and popular and the idea that – any day now – you'll be able to print replacement parts for the things that go wrong in your house, normally your washing machine.
The first point has a lot to commend it. Printing did go, pretty quickly, from being an industrial process to being an office-based one to entering the home. Domestic and office printers are small, cheap and ingenious; it's just they never actually work. Printing ink on paper is a very mature, highly developed business, a huge and venerable industry. And what's your typical experience? Ink costs a fortune, the printer never connects to the computer, it never prints the right thing the first time and occasionally you print 1,000 copies of something when you only wanted one. If you want to imagine 3D printing in the home, think about that.
On closer examination, the second idea seems pretty far-fetched too. The parts we seek to replace are often made to very high tolerances, of very specific materials, designed to withstand very particular forces and environments. You can't just chuck a bit of random plastic in your vacuum cleaner and expect it to last 10 years. Which is not to say 3D printing won't impact on your life. It probably will. But, like every other technology, it'll probably sneak round the side and do something unexpected.
It may well start in places where there's already a market for small, cheap, plastic things. That's why I've always suspected 3D printers will first hit the high street via a chain like Claire's Accessories. 3D printing is probably brilliant for hair slides and brooches. In fact, Asda is currently running a trial in a store in York. You can pop in there, get a scan done and order a ceramic figure of yourself which arrives a few weeks later. They're probably not doing kidneys just yet.
That's why two of the more interesting businesses in this area aren't chasing 3D printing at home. They're using newly developed, but still non-domestic 3D printing techniques to create new product possibilities.
The first is a business called MakieLab – a London start-up that's trying to integrate physical stuff and the web. They let you design a 3D action doll like you might in an online game world, then you can order it and it's printed overnight. And they're gorgeous things – highly tuneable by you, you design the expression, you pick the accessories. They also have resolutely realistic body shapes, not at all Barbie-like, and that might be another important characteristic of 3D printing – people with ideas that don't match corporate mainstream orthodoxy get access to a manufacturing system. So it's not just the big toy companies that get to make toys.
Another 3D printing business called the Flexiscale Company is cleverly targeting people who already like small plastic things – railway modellers – and they've spotted an interesting opportunity. Right now, if you want to make a model train you have to pick from one of the relatively few models available from the big manufacturers, or, if you want something more obscure, you have to start from scratch. And of course, modellers are exactly the people who want something more obscure. Flexiscale's advantage is that they don't have to make thousands of copies of each kit and hope they'll all sell. They'll just print a new one for each order. And they can make a good business out of the slightly obscure.
So don't get worried by the headlines – 3D printing isn't about making guns. It's a cosier, nicer thing than that. It's about dolls and model trains. It's for hobbyists and makers. It probably won't be long before we're all glued to the telly for The Great British Print Off.