Will 3D printers lead toward nanofactories?

The coming era of atomically precise manufacturing will provide digital control of the structure of matter for a very wide range of possible products and will make possible personal manufacturing of most products. Steps toward digital control of the structure of matter and personal manufacturing, although on a scale much less precise than atomic and for a much more limited range of products, are to be seen with today’s rapidly developing 3D-printing technology. Rival technologies were on display a few weeks ago in Las Vegas. From BBC News “CES 2012: 3D printer makers’ rival visions of future” by Leo Kelion:

With a whir and a click the job is done. In the space of 20 minutes a plastic bottle opener has been constructed by the Replicator – a 3D printing machine capable of making objects up to the size of a loaf of bread.

The device is made by the New York start-up Makerbot Industries and was launched this week at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.

The newly-created bottle opener feels warm to the touch and has to be prised away from its base.

It has been created by using extrusion technology – a process in which a spindle of plastic thread is unravelled, melted and fed through a print head which draws the object layer by layer – in this case at a rate of 40mm per second. …

Objects can be created on a computer using free online software such as TinkerCAD or Google Sketchup, before being transferred to the Replicator on a SD memory card.

Alternatively other people’s designs can be downloaded from Makerbot’s community website Thingiverse. …

Take a walk to the other side of the convention centre and you will find another plastic printer maker with another new product, but a very different way of thinking.

3D Systems is a North Carolina-based veteran of the business.

“We invented 3D printers,” its Israeli-born chief executive Abe Reichental says.

“For 25 years we have taken the classic journey of taking expensive, complex technology and bringing it down in price.

“We have about 1,000 workers worldwide. We are a publicly traded company on the New York Stock Exchange. We have almost as many patents as employees.”

The firm is at CES to publicise the launch of Cube, its first consumer-focused product.

The $1,299 device is smaller than Makerbot’s but looks more user-friendly, utilising cartridges rather than spools of plastic thread.

It also boasts its own app store. The launch library includes software to customise belt buckles, a program to turn your voice into a bracelet design, and perhaps most excitingly software from developer Geomagic for Microsoft’s Kinect sensor that allows the peripheral to replicate the user’s face. …

Philippe Van Nedervelde, Foresight’s Executive Director-Europe, contributes his thoughts on the significance of current developments in 3D printers,

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The era of Personal 3D Printing for consumers [has officially started], it seems. And what with its existing track record of excellence plus the slew of key 3D printing companies it has been buying up the company 3D Systems is well poised to become the IBM, Apple, or HP of this new space. (25 years from now, someone should kick me if I do not buy any shares now.)

My sense is that this launch is a close analog to the start-of-an-era-marking launch of the first PC by IBM on August 12, 1981. In some ways, a possibly even closer analog may be the launch of the original Mac on January 24, 1984.

Very interesting times ahead!…

~ Philippe ~

Perhaps Philippe is not exaggerating the significance of this emerging personal manufacturing technology. Personal manufacturing of plastic consumer items may accelerate developing productive nanosystems to make possible personal manufacturing of complex atomically precise consumer products.
—James Lewis

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