Monday, December 31, 2012

3D printing

I've heard of this technology for a while, but never really pay much attention to it. However, two items which related to this topic that I came across recently kinda get me thinking about this topic a bit more. The first one is a news about some people worried that criminals may use 3D printing technology to make firearms privately. The second item is, yes TED again!, I saw a clip about 3D printing, a walkthrough of a bunch of positive things that this technology can bring to us in various areas, including manufacturing, architecture, medical implants, etc.

Certainly, same as many technologies before, it is a case of double-edged sword. It depends on who got a hand on the technology. Unlike, guns which can serve the purpose of protection and deterrence, it is by means of causing harm nonetheless. 3D-printing itself is a marvelous technology. As it become more affordable and portable, the possibility has no ceiling. However, based on what I saw in the TED talk, to make 3D printing into practical use, there requires few components:

1. The 3D printer itself - I believe there will be different sizes and complexities. In terms of quality, there shouldn't be too big a difference.
2. The Software program for the 3D printer - It is to run the 3D printer, basically, it offers some viewing and some simple manipulation functions to modify a design.
3. The virtual product code - It didn't mention too much in the TED talk. It is basically the code of  a completed virtual product after being designed.
4. The Software program that design the product - I think it is more or less the CAD that most industrial designers are using these days. I don't know too much about this, I'm wondering if there is any related programs that can help to 'test' the CAD designed products.
5. Raw materials - that's what being put into the 3D printer to really make the final physical product.

What I saw from TED talk is that, basically the 3D printer makes the product layer by layer, somehow like making one MRI scan after another, stack them up, and 'glue' them together somehow in correct order. By doing this way, many complicated designs can come true, particularly that I found impressive is potential medical use of making a 'lung' and a 'heart'. As we all know, human organs are very complicated, based on what I saw, I think it they have achieved to make it only up to a certain level of details, not down to blood vessels level or downwards. That's why the current model is basically building a 'shell' with proper room for really tissues to grow on, and may use that somehow for implant. At this stage, lung or heart transplant is still out of question, but some partial bone fragment replacement is certainly workable. However, I think this technology will further advance, and a fully replication of internal organ is foreseeable. But, the tricky part will be #5, what inorganic raw material can be used to replace organic tissue. That's gonna be a Nobel Price answer.

Going back to the 5 points that I listed above, I think #1, 2 will hardly be regulated. #1 and 2 come together, what drive them will be market force. #3 will be like songs, with internet these days, it can be pirated, sold legally or illegally. It will be hard to keep track on. Certainly, it is possible to check the author of those codes, there might be a regulatory body internationally for 'authors' to register for copyright and intellectual property right protection. But, that's about it.

#5 is a tricky one. Some raw materials can be controlled or checked, particularly for some rare metals or materials. It is just plastic or common metals, then, regulators will be out of luck. #4 is another tricky part, many people can learn and know how to use CAD. But, the most important part is second part of how to 'Test' the product to ensure they can do what they suppose to do, that's the key part. I'm not sure if that can be regulated neither. But, it is actually the most essential part of the product cycle. Let's use the case of making gun as an example. A gun has many parts and they can be made of different materials. Let's put the bullet part aside, even if the dimensions of the parts are 100% right. How can they ensure the materials together withstand the firing motion without accidents IF somehow the maker of the product doesn't have 100% pure and correct raw materials for usage? It has to come down to actual making and testing, it can't be done by a computer program. CAD is available, and user can make anything with it. But, the computer program for product testing is another sorry. Each program must be tailor made, and it involves not just computer specialty, but many other specialized knowledge as well. So, without the testing program, actual product testing must be done instead, and the safety of it will be particularly a great concern.

What I've mentioned above suggested no solution to control anything, but what I've come across in the news and TED really got me thinking and I just shared what I thought with you.

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