Netflix began streaming an original documentary Print the Legend September 26, 2014. Tracing the development of the 3D printing industry, the documentary introduces the companies and individuals who are currently operating in the additive manufacturing market, and explores the uses of the technology both past and prospective. The film also exposes some of the risks of a now-open-source technology. Some groups welcome the opportunity to use the 3D printing for subversive means. In addition to covering the history of the technology behind 3D printing, Print the Legend also chronicles the leader of one of these groups.
3D printing, also known as additive manufacturing, is a technology that enables designers to translate digital designs into actual, functional objects by the use of plastics, resins, and lasers. On the order of the replicator in the Star Trek franchise, but slowed down and requires design software instead of simply responding to voice commands.
In traditional manufacturing models, items are made using molds or reductive manufacturing, where raw materials are either melted and poured into molds or machined down into desired configurations. With additive manufacturing, objects are fashioned into the design by adding layer upon layer of a plastic which is then hardened into the desired form.
Until just a few years ago, 3D printing was limited to industrial applications. 3D Systems and Stratasys sold the machines that are used in airplane and automotive part manufacturing, for example, at a price point near $80,000. In 2009, three college students got together and formed a company called MakerBot. Their goal was to make the manufacturing process affordable and accessible to any desktop user with a 3D printing machine. Shortly after, a number of other tech start-up companies joined the race to enter the desktop 3D printing business. The film follows the stories of some of those start-ups. When established companies with a corner on the industrial-scale 3D printing devices realized that newer tech upstarts like MakerBot were entering their business space, some of them decided to modify their product line to include more affordable products for the consumer market.
The scope of industrial applications for additive manufacturing continues to expand. In addition to creating parts for automotive and air transport applications, 3D imaging has shown potential for use in medical prosthetics, skull implants, and artificial organs. At the International Manufacturing Technology Show in Chicago recently, a company named Local Motors used additive manufacturing to produce a custom-designed car, the Strati, in 44 hours. With access to 3D printing technologies, the barrier of entry to industries that have traditionally been ruled by three to four manufacturers has been forever disrupted.
As is the case with most technology, additive manufacturing creates some ethical dilemmas. Already, 3D printing has been used to manufacture a plastic firearm that successfully fired live ammunition. The tracking of international manufacture, sale, and transfer of weaponry is difficult to monitor in best-case scenarios. The ability for anyone with a 3D printer and ample materials to manufacture their own goods without governmental or regulatory oversight can complicates matters.
It has only been recently, however, that awareness of 3D printing has begun to appear in mainstream society. Amazon announced that it would offer one-off 3D manufacturing services to its customers. While Amazon itself will not be involved in the additive manufacturing, it will contract with three companies who currently have the capacity to create 3D items from computerized designs. UPS is another consumer-based company entering the market with 3D services for customers. UPS recently reported that it will set up and maintain 3D printing machines on site in 100 of its branded retail shops.
In the documentary, principles of the companies highlighted explain some of the applications of additive manufacturing that are likely to gain widespread acceptance. Personalized lines of clothing, eye glasses, customized design of accessories such as smart phone cases, and shoes top the list. While the ethics and economic benefits and costs of additive manufacturing remain to be worked out, it remains clear that human curiosity and wider access to manufacturing technologies that 3D printing allows will continue to challenge the notion of traditional manufacturing and ethics.
By Kaley Perkins