3D printing

Of late I’ve become slightly obsessed with the idea of 3D printing.  You will have no doubt seen pieces in the news about this such as how we might be able to save rhinos through 3D printing horns, Michelin star chefs using 3D printers to create signature dishes, or the creation of a new beak for a turtle hit by a boat propeller.  Although it is an idea that has been around since the late 1980s, it appears to be gaining some real traction in recent years having moved from being predominantly a tool for prototyping into mainstream industrial production processes, medical and health-related uses and even marketing and events promotions.

3D printing – or additive manufacturing as it is sometimes known – challenges many of the traditional rules of manufacturing.  These processes don’t necessarily need to achieve economies of scale in the same ways as traditional manufacturing as modes of production are not concentrated in the same ways and can be owned by individuals in their own homes.  As such there is the possibility to customise products in ways that would be expensive to achieve operating within a traditional model of manufacturing.  Even if you don’t own your own 3D printer it is easy to get a design printer locally through a local hub.  This technology has crossed over into the realm of art and design with some wonderful examples of home wares, jewelry and sculptures available often with intricate designs (such as the ball in the image below) which are difficult to achieve through traditional techniques.  In line with the open approach of many enthusiasts of 3D printing, sites such as Thingiverse (linked to the MakerBot company who sell home 3D printers) share designs for objects freely.

Essentially 3D printing is an extension of traditional 2D printing, but where material is added in such a way to build up an item in 3 dimensions rather than flat on a page.   In practice it is slightly more complex than this and there are a number of different approaches to this process including material extrusion, vat photopolymerization and powder bed fusion.  To date most of the material used to 3D print have been plastic, plaster or metal powders but more recently foodstuffs and even living cells have been used.  Whilst a relatively new technology that appears a little science fiction, if you have flown in a new plane or have a hearing device it is likely that you will have at first hand experienced a 3D printed object or part without even knowing this.

For those new to the topic you may find books like Christopher’ Barnatt’s 3D printing or Lipson and Kurman’s Fabricated helpful introductions.  Certainly there are no end of websites that explain, discuss and showcase 3D printed products (see Explaining the Future, 3D printing industry, MakerBot for just a few examples) and many YouTube videos where you can see 3D printing in action.  It is relatively easy to start to understand and get lost in the ideas of this approach and the different technologies and applications from the material out there but this is a field that is moving quickly and there are new developments on a regular basis.

Although the technology and the sorts of application are incredibly exciting, what I am more interested in is the sorts of implications these advancements have for public policy and the practice of public administration.  To date there haven’t been a huge number of contributions made in this space beyond the application of particular techniques or  products to say health or education.  In addition to producing things 3D printing could radically alter the nature of how we deliver particular services to particular groups (for example, in terms of applications around aged care).  Moreover there are implications in terms of how governments regulate in a context where it is possible to 3D print a gun or drugs in one’s own home.  There are, of course. a range of considerations in terms of the ownership of intellectual property.  More broadly there are some significant implications in terms of social and economic development which have yet to be explored in much detail.

I’ll be blogging on some of these issues as I think about these in more detail and am keen to hear from people thinking about similar sorts of issues.

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