Feb 12 2012

There Are Big Differences Between 3d Printing & VR


Recently, Christoper Mims over at Technology Review wrote a piece and noted that he used the opening graphic from my H+ article (Adding Our Way to Abundance) which makes me wonder if he’s directing this article at me about how he is sure that 3d printing will go the way that VR did back in the 90’s, essentially overhyped, then ignored for over a decade.

He’s been rebutted by another writer at Technology Review but there are a few aspects I’d like to focus on in specific:

There are big differences between VR and 3d printing:

1: VR was a “hyped” at a stage where the computer technology simply wasn’t there to support the claims. I was laughing at the rather ridiculous claims being thrown around at the time, because the processing power, bandwidth, and display technology simply didn’t exist to support the hype. While 3d printing is also not completely to the point I describe above, we are far closer to that level than VR was during its initial hype phase. Also, the first “hype phase” for 3d printing occurred ten years ago, it just didn’t reach the same levels that VR did. I have been watching it move from that initial stage to practical application in prototype manufacturing, and it is now in its second hype phase as it is moving from prototype to production level. The reason this initial hype phase never reached the same level is because it was just another victim of the “tech bubble” that burst following 9/11 when every technology company suddenly had to face new “security” measures, and the costs associated with them. They’ve already had their “disinterest” phase and are now emerging into the secondary cycle with practical applications in the immediate present.

2: VR was “hyped” before there was a “high level” demand for it. 3d printing has extremely practical uses, outlined in my article linked above, which makes it a priority for those at the top of the economy. Unlike VR, 3d printing offers enormous benefits to the highest tiers of society, and this is focusing massive pressure on its development. The mutation of the electronics companies from “primary manufacturers” to “design studios” who develop and prototype designs before using 3rd party manufacturers to produce “branded” products has created a “do or die” evolutionary pressure on these 3rd party manufacturers. In order to meet the demands from the corporations for faster production and faster generational turn around, these companies are having little choice but to research and develop 3d manufacturing, and are aware that any of them that comes in last will be eaten.  If you haven’t noticed, most of the more dramatic “printing” breakthroughs are coming from these manufacturers, and not research labs or American manufacturing.

3: Extrusion and Sintering are merely the stage we are at now. Were there not equally dramatic advances taking place in the metamaterials field, as well as electronic “printing.” graphene production and “printing.” not to mention numerous other micro and nanofabrication advances, all occurring simultaneously, I would be more inclined to agree about the timeline as well. However, based on where we are in development on all these other fronts, and given that they will all impact the methods used to “print” 3d objects, the arguments used in Mr. Mims article show such a short and narrow focus that it seems more like a denial of a reality that it’s author doesn’t like than an argument based on observation of all evidence. It’s basically a “We can’t do it now, so it’s impossible” argument, and I’m sad to say I am not as hopeful as he is about how long it will take to develop 3d printing once all the combined factors come into play.

4: VR had no DIY components, because all the devices needed to “make it happen” were very expensive and almost everything had to be built from scratch. There were no “garage engineers” or “backyard prototypers” because the minimum entry level to play was far out of the reach of everyone who didn’t have either a company or government backing. 3d Printers are already far beyond this stage, while VR still has not reached it.  With the Makerbot, and the REP/RAP project, DIY tinkering with printers is already well underway. And if you read my article on printers linked above, you’ll know that I predict the DIY and Open Source movements will eat centralized manufacturing efforts once 3d printing has saturated the manufacturing fields. As the other article rebutting Mim’s points out, a printer can make a 90% finished product which needs minimal “tweaking” via a small scale machine shop, which makes decentralized “Fab shops” as competitive as the large scale manufacturers. There are already innovative products being made for the market by such “little dogs” as Freedom of Creation.  If the “big dogs” take too long, they will be eaten before they even get off the porch, and they know this.

I’d put more faith in Mims arguments if he had said them ten years ago. But 3d printing is just one part of everything that is occurring that I have researched. By itself, were it the only technology under development, and not under the pressures it’s under to be developed, I would agree with Mr. Mims

Then we, of course, have the flip side of the coin, which is the fact that 3d printers are not limited to manufactured products, but can print biological products as well. As a recent commentor screamed: “and if ‘food’ ever does come from a printer, it won’t be food! It will be processed, toxic muck. Processed food is already the #1 cause of disease in the industrial world.”

The problem with such claims is that it ignores the simple reality that a 3d Organic Printer is not using any of the normal industrial processes that create most of our modern foods. It is merely printing stem cells into a pattern with the needed nutrients to allow those cells to mature and merge to form a complete piece of living tissue. So, if its 100% pure beef tissue, or its 100% pure beef tissue, what does it matter if it came from a cow, or a printer? The tissue is going to be pure cow either way.

Unlike “processed food,” a stem cell printer would use the exact same biological processes to make beef that Bessie does, it merely removes the need to kill Bessie to do so. As I have pointed out repeatedly, a medically viable, functional heart for transplantation is a far more complex task then simple muscle tissue and fat. It’s not a matter of whether or not it is technically possible, that has already been proven. It’s a matter of taking it out of the lab and creating mass production techniques. Studies already exist showing that printing or growing in vitro meats are capable of reducing the costs of production over 90% compared to traditional cattle farming, and produce 90% less waste products.

The UK Guardian reported that a recent study calculates “that cultured meat will have 80-95% lower greenhouse gas emissions, 99″% lower land use and 80-90% lower water use compared to conventionally produced meat in Europe. Every kilo of conventionally produced meat requires 4kg-10kg of feed, whereas cultured meat significantly increases efficiency by using only 2kg of feed. Based on our results, if cultured meat constituted half of all meat consumed we could halve the greenhouse emissions, and increase the forest cover by 50%, which is equivalent to four times of Brazil’s current forest area.

“The measurement of feed for kilogram of meat is for beef.”

Think about that. For the same “cost to produce” meat via traditional cattle farming, we could produce nine times more beef via in vitro and printed meats. In other words, the meat industry could cut the cattle industry out of the picture entirely, make 90% more profits, eliminate any possible source of “diseased meat” and still produce the exact same end product. That’s one hell of an incentive on the part of “the corporations” to fund research into improvements in 3d printing.

Extrapolate that to “hard matter” manufacturing, and the ability to use creative engineering to create products that use 90% less material for the same end product, or even a superior product as 3d printers can create items impossible to manufacture traditionally, and you can see why the push to develop is going to be fast tracked from nearly every angle.

And note, I don’t dispute that “a box in the corner” is many years off. Personal 3d Printers are at least a decade away, as I have also stated previously. But the stages from current capability to the replacement of “production lines” is already underway, and likely to proceed far more rapidly than expected, particularly during the latter half of this decade, and from there, it’s likely to only be a few years to personal fabricators are wide spread. Universal Personal Fabs able to print anything desirable are probably less than two decades down the road, but again, universal adoption will likely take longer, due primarily to the prejudices of those like the commenter I quoted above. However, in the end, those fears will be proven to be unfounded, and caused merely by xenophobia.

Needless to say, 3d printing is not VR, but they are likely to develop hand in hand for the next decade, with innovations in one leading to innovations in the other as we begin the merger of “Physibles” and VR with our “real world.” Mr. Mims is quite welcome to his doubts. I just don’t see reality supporting them.