Cornell University’s Professor Hod Lipson is co-author of Fabricated: The New World of 3D Printing, and is a tireless advocate of new printing technologies that have not yet made it into CRE’s list of printer rentals. The professor made a few “fun” predictions about the 3D printers of the near future (say, 10 years from now)—and toyed with such far-future fantasies as Star Trek-like food replicators—in a recent interview with Y-Axis Magazine. It would appear that the professor has fanned the flames of excitement about 3D printing yet again (though it doesn’t take much).
Lipson characterizes the rise of 3D printing as a repeat of the computer’s ascendance in the 1970s, focusing especially on our utter inability to predict what change the new technology would bring, what areas of life it would affect, what tasks it would do, and so forth. Everyone guessed, he says, that “supercalculation” machines (computers) would do accounting and payroll, “but nobody could predict the wave of social networking” that connects anyone with an iPad rental to anyone with a PC or smartphone—anywhere in the world where’s there’s WiFi. And, frankly, that’s about everywhere now.
A startup starter
As technology providers, we at CRE understand the mix of creative genius and engineering elbow grease that goes into such inventions as the AJA IO HD for post-production pros. According to Lipson, the number of 3D printing-related startups is “staggering.” He is most excited about the potential of 3D printers to give people with “a day job [the] ability to start a business making and producing [something] without leaving their job… They may sell one a week, two a week, and gradually build up production, until the business takes off.” In other words, 3D printers save entrepreneurs money (huge piles of it) that would have been spent on R&D, tooling, and manufacturing.
Another area ripe for development, and fraught with both legal and moral hazards, is that of bio-printing. While it “is still not something people can do at home,” Lipson says, “printing with life cells [has] applications from surgical training and planning to making a real-life implant.” He suggests a future where you get “an MRI scan…while you are healthy” so doctors could “replicate” broken bones or organs when you need them. Lipson states confidently that this will be “increasingly possible,” the kind of statement that gets tech-heads and futurists all excited. Sometimes they get too excited and talk so much about the “incredible potential”—bionic legs for amputees, new eyes for the blind—that they must be reminded that “potential” is something that hasn’t happened yet.
It can be hard to parse the old word “print” the new way it’s used with 3D printing—honestly, the notion that you could “print” food sounds a little silly. Perhaps “replicate” (or simply “make”) will be the verb of choice for the application of this technology to making food. Lipson specifically mentions printers using “chocolate, peanut butter, cookie dough, frosting, pesto, cheese, etc.” While the near future likely holds the ability for millions of folks to soon be ”printing plastic at their home,” Lipson insists that the market for printing food might be even greater.
Lipson acknowledges that the technology so far has been about making “passive parts,” often discrete ones at that. He goes on to point out, however, that printing with “multiple materials” means the number of things that you can make increases “exponentially.” We’ll know we’re at the tipping point when we see, says Lipson, a 3D version of “the IBM PC,” the iconic device that defined the terms “PC” and “computer rental” for generations. That will signify the arrival of a standard for the “consumer 3D printing platform” to replace the competing, incompatible technologies. It’s going to happen, the professor insists, asserting confidently that “many businesses 10 years from now will have a 3D printer, and more than half the homes will have a 3D printer 20 years from now.”
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