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3D Printing and the Replicator Economy 322

An anonymous reader writes "'Tea. Earl Grey. Hot,' is a command familiar to every Trek fan as representing everyday use of replicator technology. While its use on the show is simply sci-fi wizardry, the beginnings of that technology is now making it into homes, and could spark an industrial revolution. 'New 3D printing and other so-called additive manufacturing technologies are based on methods that industries developed over the past quarter century to rapidly create prototypes of mechanical parts for testing. But as these methods become increasingly sophisticated, demand is rising to use them to manufacture finished products, not only in factories but also at a boutique, one-off level for individuals. ... Already, 3D printing has been used to make tools and artworks, custom-fitted prosthetics for amputees, components for aviation and medical instruments, solid medical models of bones and organs based on MRI scans, paper-based photovoltaic cells, and the body panels for a lightweight hybrid automobile.'"
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3D Printing and the Replicator Economy

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  • by Joe_Dragon ( 2206452 ) on Monday August 01, 2011 @01:51PM (#36949916)

    stock up on bullets EMP's and lasers don't work on them

  • by hsmith ( 818216 ) on Monday August 01, 2011 @01:56PM (#36949974)
    3D printers have a way to go, but there already have been modeled objects that have received infringement claims. It will only get worse.
    • And then it will get better :)

    • I can imagine PirateBay hosting torrents for 3D printer 'blueprints'.
      Then those "Would you steal a car?!?1/! You shouldn't pirate videos then!" commercials to actually be logically sound.
    • Fortunatelly copycat dudes can't reach this tech due to the cost, a capable laser sintering machine is sold for tens of thousands of dollars.
      • So were Plasma TV's, 10 years ago. Now the cost is what? and for a bigger model? Cool.
        • by Rich0 ( 548339 )

          Maybe. But, robots that build cars were expensive in the 80s, and they're still expensive today.

          I'm sure costs will drop, but you have to look at the components that make a device expensive. If the expensive components are integrated circuits, then of course the price is going to fall like a rock. If they're expensive due to poor yields, then there is also going to be a lot of room for prices to drop, since yields go up as technology improves. On the other hand, if they're expensive because they rely on

    • 3D printers have a way to go, but there already have been modeled objects that have received infringement claims. It will only get worse.

      You pay the licensing fees just as you would for anything else.

      Life goes on.

      Ralph Williams' "Business As Usual, During Alterations" [] First publication, "Astounding," July 1958.

      For any non-trivial application of a replicator there will be issues.

      You LEGO house needs to be structurally sound.

      It needs to be fire resistant. The plastic must not off-gas toxic fumes.

      All this and more has to be documented and certified in a way that will be persuasive to your local zoning board, building inspector, real estate

    • That's a bit shrill. It's true that there will be resistance to you reproducing name brand products for free. If the technology gets there, manufacturing as an industry is going to face that change exactly as the RIAA and MPAA are, fighting it tooth and claw, and not caring about collateral damage.

      Just as the RIAA and MPAA have not killed downloadable music or streaming movies, and publishers have not killed the internet as distribution for news, I doubt manufacturers are going to be able to kill 3D pr
  • by Compaqt ( 1758360 ) on Monday August 01, 2011 @01:57PM (#36950004) Homepage

    On the one hand you have the possible utopia of unlimited "free" stuff.

    And on the other, the distopia of companies locking this technology up, and firing (almost all) the workers.

    It would be great to believe the former. But a whole lot of people seem to be afraid of the latter.

    Is there any unwavering indicator one way or the other?

    • by ColdWetDog ( 752185 ) on Monday August 01, 2011 @02:01PM (#36950054) Homepage

      What's free about this stuff? Printers aren't free and the more complex ones that actually do something are likely to be even more expensive. The feedstocks aren't going to be free.

      Unless you can conceive of an economy run on simple plastic objects with no moving parts, I don't see anything today that resembles the hallucination that is Star Trek. Or even The Diamond Age.

      • by ColdWetDog ( 752185 ) on Monday August 01, 2011 @02:02PM (#36950076) Homepage

        Oh, and before anyone else feels the need to express the obvious, dildos will not support an entire economy. Sorry.

      • by vlm ( 69642 ) on Monday August 01, 2011 @02:08PM (#36950140)

        Unless you can conceive of an economy run on simple plastic objects with no moving parts,

        My main interest is making patterns to be sandcast in aluminum. It turns out that patternmaking is remarkably hard and painful when a pattern breaks or is lost. Of course when another is available by "press go" then its not so bad.

        Also note that "simple plastic objects with no moving parts" represents probably 50% by weight or volume of the stuff at walmart and target. Entire aisles of laundry baskets, storage baskets, kitchen gadgets, housewares gadgets, all obsolete.

        • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

          by Knuckles ( 8964 )

          Also not that "no moving parts" is not even necessarily true: []

        • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

          by westlake ( 615356 )

          Also note that "simple plastic objects with no moving parts" represents probably 50% by weight or volume of the stuff at walmart and target. Entire aisles of laundry baskets, storage baskets, kitchen gadgets, housewares gadgets, all obsolete.

          You won't be paying OEM prices for your chemical feedstocks.

          Think mile-long unit trains. Fleets of container ships. Transcontinental pipelines.

          Does it make sense for the high wage geek to spend hours or days at home fabricating plastic forks and spoons that sell for $1.39 a box at the dollar store?

          Scavaging aluminum at 5 cents a can?

          Do we ignore the problem of air, ground and water pollution when you bring an industrial process into the home?

        • Warhammer figurines. Yay. Looking around this room, I also think of cable conduit (Exactly to length and shape of room), dog toys, replacement top covers for the radiator valves, coathangers, the plastic things that the electronics for a USB memory stick go inside... nifty. That last one for customisation purposes. Having a custom-shaped USB stick brings a little geek-cred.
        • Good idea. Take it further with a 3D model made of foam and that would make for some easy lost-foam casting.

        • by LWATCDR ( 28044 )

          And look at the cost of most of that. A laundry basket? Storage Bins. Molding is cheap when you a lot anything. This is useful for limited run items like your patterns. Get on of these that prints in foam or wax and does it fast and it could be great for manufactures. For those widgets you mentioned the savings isn't worth the cost of the printer.

      • by Bios_Hakr ( 68586 ) <> on Monday August 01, 2011 @02:12PM (#36950186)

        It may not happen soon enough in the scale that will impact the majority of the people, but it is already happening.

        Here is a link to a guy who took the plans for an old Guillows free-flight plane and converted it to a 3d printable version: []

        Here is a link to a company that makes a "printer" for foam for simple models and prototyping: []

        I think we are fast approaching the time when the printers will be able to print another copy of itself.

        Sure, you'll need the raw material, but we are at the point now where you could "print" an Ikea furniture piece.

      • > simple plastic objects with no moving parts

        Why "no moving parts"?

        Here's a story of a company that can print a monkey wrench: []

      • Once you can print a printer, they will not be expensive at all.

    • by Genda ( 560240 ) <> on Monday August 01, 2011 @02:52PM (#36950728) Journal

      Are you kidding? Do you have any clue as to the actual number of people in America today who are out of work? [] Add to that the virtual collapse of available jobs in government and public services, well you get the picture.

      Tell me that every advance in productivity, every application of robotics, every technological enhancement that makes it possible for business to make more, better, cheaper products hasn't resulted in higher wages for the Board of Directors and lower wages for the common worker in real currency. We now live in a global economy that sees human labor as a commodity, and all of it is to serve a self obsessed, self indulgent, corporate elite.

      You want unwavering indicators, here are a few that might help you hone in on an answer:

      • The average income for a middle class American in adjust dollars over the last 50 years
      • The ratio of income between the average worker and CEO of all American business over the last 50 years
      • The number of patents issued to corporations per year over the last 50 years
      • The number of patent attorneys employed per year over the last 50 years
      • The number of exceptions, exclusions and abridgments to your civil rights enacted per year over last 50 years
      • The number of people in prison per year over the last 50 years
      • The number of people on food stamps, food lines, homeless and living with friends or relatives over the last 50 years

      What you will see is a mass migration into poverty and population control. We are being herded into oblivion. You honestly tell me if you had a billion dollars how eager you would be to help the masses vs feathering your own nest. We've built a society of bottomless appetites, with fewer and fewer souls who can feed that hunger. Can you see any way for the common man to make out in such a world?

      Let me put it another way. The greater people are responsible for the future. Until the masses hold wisdom more highly than gratification, dignity above notoriety, justice above animal revenge and compassion above dominion, we can pretty much predict how it will all turn out. We have done a spectacular job of teaching our children to be fat, stupid and ready to dance to any tune their corporate masters may choose to play. What indicators are you looking at?

    • by MarkvW ( 1037596 )

      Somebody is going to sell this technology. It is far too cool and far too desirable.

      The bugaboo of companies "locking up" the technology didn't work for the printing press, the copier, the computer printer, the cassette player, and the DVD drive. It won't work for 3D printers either.

      Too many people will be coming out with competitive devices and everyone will have to fight for market share. The company that sits on the technology and doesn't exploit it will waste a great opportunity.

  • by Baloroth ( 2370816 ) on Monday August 01, 2011 @01:59PM (#36950018)

    So, when can I download my free car from TPB?

  • by DanTheStone ( 1212500 ) on Monday August 01, 2011 @01:59PM (#36950022)
    And the 3D printer would spit out a liquid almost, but not quite, entirely unlike tea.
    • And the 3D printer would spit out a liquid almost, but not quite, entirely unlike tea^H^H^H a car.


    • by blair1q ( 305137 )

      I was gonna say.

      Call me when it can actually make: tea, Earl Grey, hot.

      Actually, Earl Grey is vile and pussified. I'll have the Assam.

      • Actually, Earl Grey is vile and pussified.

        Not all Earl Grey is vile. My favorite tea is a nice loose leaf Darjeeling tea. I am lucky that I have a whole bunch (several pounds) at home that I get my Indian co workers to bring back when they go for a visit and then vacuum pack and toss in the deep freeze so it stays fresh.

  • by UnknowingFool ( 672806 ) on Monday August 01, 2011 @01:59PM (#36950030)
    From what I remember replicators converted energy into matter. 3D printing converts matter in one form like powder to a more solid form another albeit it is very customizable in the shape of the objects. To me it's more like assembly than replication.
    • by Genda ( 560240 )

      Actually the first replicators on Star Trek (Star Trek Enterprise), were assemblers, assembling food stuffs from raw molecular stock (also a great way to recycle organic waste on a ship.) The question is always one of energy. The energy required to assemble a steak is not insignificant. The energy required to replicate a steak from energy to matter however is stunning. Of course there may be all kinds of cool technologies to reduce the ridiculous amount of energy it would take using the tech we now have to

    • Start trek replicators function by rearranging matter. Crap in*, stuff out. They use the same technology as transporters, but use low-resolution images rather than a submolecular-level resolution from a pattern buffer**. The lower resolution isn't good enough for making living tissue, and the slight chemical distortion in food products gives them a harmless but unpleasant taste.

      *Literially. As Enterprise established, the toilets are piped into the replicator input. DS9 established that the ship's air is
  • Virus (Score:3, Funny)

    by SnarfQuest ( 469614 ) on Monday August 01, 2011 @02:01PM (#36950050)

    Can you imagine the kind of virus attacks you will have to protect yourself from?

    Beyond a pile of dildos falling out of your inbox every day, you may have to deal with theif-bots, explosives, smelly messes, noise makers, and herbal viagra advertisements. Then, there will also be the polotical campaigns.

    • by Genda ( 560240 )

      Forget that... what about assassination by putting a virus in someones replicator that replicates a physical virus? In fact you could have the replicator manufacture a virus with a genetic lock to a single person, ensuring only that person would succumb to your specially engineered Ebola virus. You could do all kinds of very unpleasant mischief with such technology.

  • Won't have it all (Score:5, Interesting)

    by plover ( 150551 ) * on Monday August 01, 2011 @02:02PM (#36950064) Homepage Journal

    3D printing addresses one component of "stuff". Electronics, servomotors, glass, ceramics, metals, all those are components that may need to play a functional part in anything much more complicated than a Lego brick.

    Don't get me wrong: I've been in complete awe of 3D printing since I saw one in 1991 at IMTS in Chicago. They used lasers to spot-harden UV-curable resin, then lowered the support table by 0.1 mm and drew in the next layer. After it was complete, they drained the resin and rinsed the part off. It was absolutely amazing, and that was 20 years ago. Modern additive machines are even cooler, with the ability to combine different materials and colors, making a finished part with a much cleaner process.

    But they still have to affordably produce a sufficient number of end-user-usable things before we'll see them in the average home. Need a 100 cc measuring cup because all you have are imperial measuring cups? No problem! Need a TV remote control, or a toaster? Sorry.

    • There are 3D printers that can produce circuits (although they're expensive and calibration is a bitch). You can even produce motors in them. ICs are still a long way away from being possible though.
      • ICs are like the easiest fucking thing to make an auto-fab for. The fact that they don't exist is due to tight tolerances--quality of manufacturing and maintenance needs are so high it's not feasible outside an industrial situation.
    • Those parts are all common though - not custom-made for a specific application.

      The toaster is almost doable. You could create a toaster frame out of thermoset plastic, but you'd have to wind the heating wire on it by hand, and it would have no timer or switch. Fire hazard.
  • by Overzeetop ( 214511 ) on Monday August 01, 2011 @02:03PM (#36950088) Journal

    The natural progression of most products is towards disposable goods. The danger of this generation (and likely the next) of replication machines is that the materials will not have the kind of physical properties that make things durable. Luckily we've been weaned off durable, and now we expect to be able to break most items with moderate human force. And these items will fit the bill in that case.

    Making components for system critical or life safety functions, except as en emergency "everyone will die if the part isn't here right now" condition, is a bad, bad idea. Of course, there are too many people in the world...maybe this is just another way to thin out the herd?

    • by JordanL ( 886154 )
      While I agree to some extent with the sentiment you're expressing, I think, in general, the progression has been much more toward identifying the purpose of an item and creating that item to exactly fill that purpose, including its purpose-stated lifetime.

      That's all separate from certain consumer goods that have been designed to fail for the good of continual demand. What I'm more saying is, the progression of technology has been more towards "Well, we want a solid model of this guy's bones so that we ca
    • Also note that each time a thing is destroyed, society loses its value. Of course, if you can melt down the broken plastic cup as fresh feed stock, then the cost of remaking it is extremely low... but then we get into soviet methods .... []
  • Picard's Star Trek post-dated Douglas Adams' take on the replicating tea machine, which was a sadly far more likely outcome than the Star Trek ideal.

    A far more interesting exploration of replicating technology within the home was in Neal Stephenson's The Diamond Age. Although aspects of the exploration within that book went somewhat esoteric it did at least give a hard sci-fi contemplation of the impact of the technology, instead of using it as the background to space opera.

    • Picard's Star Trek post-dated Douglas Adams' take on the replicating tea machine, which was a sadly far more likely outcome than the Star Trek ideal.

      hey, we're talking about the 24th century here. maybe Picard prefers his Earl Grey as almost, but not quite, entirely unlike tea :)

      A far more interesting exploration of replicating technology within the home was in Neal Stephenson's The Diamond Age. Although aspects of the exploration within that book went somewhat esoteric it did at least give a hard sci-fi contemplation of the impact of the technology, instead of using it as the background to space opera.

      /. and literature, a strange but fitting combination... another nice novel about the possibilities of a self-made/replication-tech society is Doctorow's Makers [].

  • Knee Replacements (Score:4, Informative)

    by Tihstae ( 86842 ) <> on Monday August 01, 2011 @02:04PM (#36950104) Homepage

    These guys http: [] make knee replacements based off of MRI or CT scans. They exactly match your knee rather than the surgeon choosing from small, medium, or large parts out of a bin.

    Amazing stuff.

  • Car Analogy (Score:4, Interesting)

    by rodrigoandrade ( 713371 ) on Monday August 01, 2011 @02:06PM (#36950118)

    When was the last time you built your own car? All parts required are readily available.

    What percentage of all PC users build their own PC (overall PC users, not /. geeks)??

    The thing is, most people don't have patince/skill to build things, and they're better of just buying thigs they need, like TFA says.

    3D printing could be the next industrial revolution, but it could also be a niche for hobbists.

    • Assembling a computer from parts is fairly easy. Building new components is a little more difficult. I don't have access to a billion-dollar chip fabrication plant.

    • You're absolutely right, every-time I hear someone yell that the sky is falling because of 3D printers I ask them how it is that books managed to survive the era of the home printer... just because you CAN print something at home doesn't mean it's cheaper or easier than going to the store.

      I'm sure we'll get to a point where lots of people have their own 3D printer (I'm actually looking at building/buying one myself) but consumer technology is ALWAYS behind the curve compared to what is being used in indu
  • View from the bbc (Score:4, Interesting)

    by auric_dude ( 610172 ) on Monday August 01, 2011 @02:08PM (#36950146)
    A few well timed words from the BBC [] - listen or look. Quite a few ideas and links to follow.
  • copyright stuff (Score:4, Insightful)

    by craftycoder ( 1851452 ) on Monday August 01, 2011 @02:13PM (#36950200)

    I think people who say 3D printers are "not going anywhere thanks to IP law" are missing the point. 3D printers are for people who want to design and build their own things and less about trying to save money by building your own version of a absurdly cheap Walmart available gizmo. A 3D printer will never compete with Lego as an affordable way to replace Lego's manufacturing capabilities. I have no doubt that these machines will be co-opted for nefarious goals on occasion, but mostly they will be cost additive rather than cost saving or even cost neutral compared to the mark up on a manufactured items.

    I have a couple of things I've been wanting to build for quite sometime but I don't have rapid prototyping capabilities at home. Once I get to my local hackerspace and print out a a few prototypes and get the design worked out I'll be having them machined out of aluminum and sell the products. More money will move through the economy and maybe even a few jobs will be created. These may even bring about a renaissance in the small business. Here's to hoping anyway.

    • Nifty for counterfeiting though. Brand-name goods are already sold at times for thousands of times their manufacturing costs. Even if printing them costs a bit more, it'd still be cheaper than retail price. I'm thinking Warhammer figures, littly kitchy statues of Disney characters, designer sunglasses, that sort of thing.
    • They should serve superbly for making small lost-material foundry patterns. It's easy to cast metal, but patternmaking is labor-intensive.

  • by DanielRavenNest ( 107550 ) on Monday August 01, 2011 @02:16PM (#36950248)

    Haas Automation, the largest automated machine tool maker in the US uses automated machine tools to make more automated machine tools. They use several hundred of their own products on their factory floor. This also lets them test out their product in a real working environment.

    • of course, replication without automation has been around even longer. My father worked in large U.S. tool and die maker that routinely used their milling machines to make more milling machines, with a lot of blood, sweat and tears of very skilled machinists. Amazing what they did before CNC, complex curves by various tricks of the trade.
    • by LWATCDR ( 28044 )

      Automated machine tools are differn't from 3D printers. Very cool mind you but different CNC has been around for decades.

  • Not cost effective (Score:5, Informative)

    by i_b_don ( 1049110 ) on Monday August 01, 2011 @02:26PM (#36950370)

    Look, 3D printers are cool. They're awesome for anyone who ever wanted to build something quickly. I use one at work regularity so I fully appreciate the technology..... BUT they are just not cost effective compared to mass manufacturing processes.

    There are often many different ways to build something in manufacturing. You can machine something, mold something, 3D print something, etc, and many different flavors of each type of manufacturing. It will be 50 years before 3D printing a lego is anywhere near as cheap as just molding a lego if ever. This is the way of things. 3D printing is awesome for doing small custom things and giving you the ability to do stuff that you either couldn't do before or that would take you a lot of time and skill to develop on your own.

    Let me give you a simple example. I use our 3D printer to manufacture small plastic pieces used in semi-conductors assemblies. This is not my primary job, just a skill that allows me to get my real job done faster. The size of the pieces I print out are around 2" x 2" x 0.5" or smaller. If I try to mass manufacturer them then I can *maybe* do them around 1 per hour. (I have to fill the platter with say 20 of them and it'll take me 20 hours to complete). This will get me accuracy that is not quite as good as molding or machining, but it's within an order of magnitude.

    So, it's not better, not cheaper, and not faster (on a per piece basis). What it gets me is small-quantity-cheap. Custom stuff, prototypes, one-offs, etc. That's it's advantage. AND it can also do some stuff traditional machining/molding just can't do ever. These are this technology's sweet spots. Even if you give the technology 10 or 20 years, you're not going to compete with molding. It's just not cost effective.

    Yes 3D printing is awesome. Yes it gives us the ability to prototype stuff in 6 hours or overnight. Yes it's cheap for stuff like that, but it's just not the be-all and do-all that the "tea, Earl gray" line would have you expect. It will be rare that you will save money by printing out your own stuff even ignoring the cost of the machine itself.


    • by sootman ( 158191 )

      > It will be rare that you will save money by printing out your
      > own stuff even ignoring the cost of the machine itself.

      What about repairs? I am champing at the bit for a good, affordable, home 3D printer for all the times when a little plastic bit breaks off of a toy or something. It's one of those things, just like any other new technology, where we can't see all the implications and possibilities just yet.

      And relating to a point you did make, one-offs and small custom stuff will also be HUGELY usef

    • by LWATCDR ( 28044 )

      Thanks for this. Everything you said is true including 3d printing is really cool. It is just too handy to draw a part and print it without waiting for a machine shop to get it done.

  • Stupid Computer (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Toe, The ( 545098 ) on Monday August 01, 2011 @02:27PM (#36950386)

    WhyTF does Picard have to say "Tea. Earl Grey. Hot" every freakin' time?

    A computer that is sophisticated enough to fly a warpdrive spaceship and replicate food should be able to understand user preferences, no?

    Shouldn't he just say, "cuppa tea" or just, "the usual" and get a nice hot cup of Earl Grey?

    Only explanation is it's MS Enterprise 5.7 and user preferences are the great new groundbreaking feature in MS Enterprise 6... expected any decade now.

    • maybe picard often got a wild hair and would drink thai ice tea or american licorice and orange rind colonial tea
    • Probably because the command is so short (three words) that he never saw the need to shorten it further. It might also be an old habbit picked up through traveling between so many different ships and stations, where the replicators wouldn't have his preferences stored.
    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by Nanosphere ( 1867972 )
      Obviously Picard had his cookies disabled.
  • Imagine "Lego Factory" a 3d printer designed to print low volume customized and/or specialized lego parts.

    Imagine creating your own set of 100 lego blocks with any color you can imagine.

    Of course if lego doesnt want to do that...someone else will...especially since the shape of the lego brick
    is no longer legally protected as a trademark.

  • by BoRegardless ( 721219 ) on Monday August 01, 2011 @05:01PM (#36952534)

    News articles of the "fluffy kind" do a disservice to people who want to know the truth about "3D printers".

    The total cost of a rapid prototype or pre-production part can work out efficiently, but you need some critical items.

    1. The "real" 3D model, sized for the process and the end use is needed: Functional differences will exist in the best machines depending on how the models are oriented & built. Hire a designer or get your own 3D modeling & CAD/CAM software, learn it & use it and the cost is anything but trivial. Usually at least $5k not counting your time, unless you get an educational discount.

    2. The "good" 3D printers to make strong usable parts are typically SLS laser sintering machines that sinter plastic or metal powders in an inert atmosphere. You do NOT put one of these at home, unless you are Steve Jobs. Figure $500k for a good one.

    3. Even the "good" parts from SLS machines often need machining and surface finishing to keep them from looking cruddy and having sizes that make fits come out wrong. I have personally spent 5 hours finishing a small RP modeled part so it would function as intended. It makes for REAL expensive parts.

    The only way to keep costs down for good usable "3D printed" parts is to use a Rapid Prototyping job shop and hire or be a good designer yourself.

  • by hughbar ( 579555 ) on Monday August 01, 2011 @05:49PM (#36953148) Homepage
    I think that printing parts could contribute to repairing things again. We used to do that in the 1950s and the 1960s, but now we throw away as the default settin, especially when we don't have a part.

    I'm currently missing some simple valve components in the hot water system in my appartment, result the whole valve needs to be changed, what a waste. The current set of printers won't solve this [because it needs solid metal for the part] but they're edging towards it with sintering and laser shaping.

    Of course this requires some sea-changes in our culture and economies too, maybe that's the hardest part. Perhaps we should 3d print some new leaders and politicians?

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