The Two Sides of 3D Printing

Carl Weinschenk
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Two news stories this week illustrate the duality of 3D printing. In a way, 3D printing is no different than a number of technologies, from nuclear power to firearms: It can be used to do extreme good (e.g., printed food, for instance, seems on first glance to have huge transformational benefits) and to cause extreme harm.

For most, 3D printing is striking. It is the most dramatic example of this kind of technology to emerge in decades.

The technology holds an evil underside, though. Computerworld reports that New York City has introduced legislation aimed at making it more difficult to distribute online drawings used in the process of 3D printing guns.


The bottom line is that the New York City Council has introduced a bill that would limit the use of 3D printers to make “firearms, ammunition and ammunition feeding devices” by licensed gunsmiths. Gunsmiths creating such elements must alert the NYC police department and seek registration within three days. Other legislation aimed at 3D printing and firearms has been discussed in California and New York State.

However, 3D printing can also bring about a lot of positive printing. According to Network World, researchers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, working with folks from Caltech and Penn State, have made a breakthrough that could have major ramifications for industry.

Until now, printing in space could only be done one material at a time. Multi-metal elements needed to be welded together. This is a potential safety hazard and the welds represent a potential weak spot on the object being created. A new process allows more varied objects to be created at the same time. Similar research is underway elsewhere. According to a press release from NASA referenced in the story, this is the first time it has been used to create a part that is being used (a mirror mount), and it is a big deal:

Say you want a metal object where you would like the ends to have different properties. One side could have a high melting temperature and the other a low density, or one side could be magnetic and the other not.

The good and the bad are happening in an environment in which 3D is moving toward being more central to the lives of people. Amazon announced this week that it is offering to customize versions of 200 items using 3D printing. The items, such as bobblehead dolls created to resemble anyone, and pet ID tags, will be slightly expensive and take about 10 days to be delivered. It’s clearly an early project, but one that shows the promise of the road ahead.

The reality is that each advancement in 3D printing has the potential to hinder society as well as help it. Nothing can make the point more clearly than these two images: a totally plastic gun being printed in the basement of a felon’s home and a protein bar being printed in a one-room shack in a drought-stricken region. They become more feasible in unison.

Carl Weinschenk covers telecom for IT Business Edge. He writes about wireless technology, disaster recovery/business continuity, cellular services, the Internet of Things, machine-to-machine communications and other emerging technologies and platforms. He also covers net neutrality and related regulatory issues. Weinschenk has written about the phone companies, cable operators and related companies for decades and is senior editor of Broadband Technology Report. He can be reached at cweinsch@optonline.net and via twitter at @DailyMusicBrk.



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