This week, one of my favourite radio programmes: In Business ran a feature on 3D printing. Ive been aware, in principle, of this technology for a while but I had it filed under the interesting only for home electronics geeks. This programme made me look at the possibilities all over again.
Essentially 3D printing allows you to use CAD and modified inkjet technology (and maybe lasers) to create complex structures in layers.
You can spread a layer of powder and use a laser to sinter it in the places you want a structure. Then spread another layer and another. Or you can spray a substance that hardens on its own (like concrete). So far so clever.
Once the technology is industrialised (and it is being used in commercial, if niche, applications already) it could herald a future of mass customisation. Your products build on demand to your highly specific requirements. Again, clever stuff but not really my field.
What I hadnt considered but this programme highlights is what this will do to the supply chain. Instead of mass manufacturing components in different parts of the world, shipping, storing and assembling them: all you need to do is ship the raw material and print on demand. Shipping loads of powder offers a much more efficient and attractive prospect than shipping many things of many sizes and shapes. Whole items, modular house, cars, tables could be printed on site or at least very close by.
It will clearly be very disruptive to companies, states and communities.
Imagine the implications for disaster relief. Instead of maintaining strategic stockpiles of shelters, tools, equipment in anticipation of a disasters as yet unknown. Responders would only need to hold stockpiles of raw material (and have sufficient printing capacity and energy to make use of it). Responses could be rapid, targeted and tailored.
Of course what would make it really useful is the ability to print food. That could be a bit further off.
For more on 3D printing try these links
fabathome.org (open source 3D printing project)