You can 3D print a gun. You can 3D print a car. You can 3D print a kidney. Honestly, you can. It just might be a whole lot more trouble than it is worth.
3D printing and successfully firing a gun, for instance, has been done by a rather focused chap called Cody Wilson in, unsurprisingly, Texas. However, even he would probably admit that almost all the other ways of getting a gun you can think of are cheaper, quicker and safer. You do not 3D print a gun as a convenient way to get a gun, you do it to make a point about 3D printing, or about guns.
If police do eventually find someone trying to print guns — it was reported two weeks ago that officers in the UK thought they had uncovered “homemade” gun parts — they are also likely to find someone who has blown their own hand off.
Right now, today, you can buy a 3D printer on the high street for around ￡700 (US$1,200). It will make all sorts of objects for you. Criminals already use these sorts of things to make cases for card skimmers to go on bank machines. This does not mean making guns has suddenly become as easy as popping some Smith & Wesson patented GunMix in the microwave.
The car industry has been 3D printing parts for years. They call it rapid prototyping because that is what it is good for — making quick prototypes of new designs. It is a long way, though, from being able to compete with the decades of ingenuity, capital and resources thrown into regular manufacturing. Ordinary factories are brilliantly efficient ways to make many copies of the same thing.
So, though the car you are driving was probably designed and tested with some 3D printing somewhere in the mix, you will not be downloading and printing a new hatchback any time soon.
On the other hand, 3D printing organs, such as kidneys, is genuinely exciting and revolutionary stuff for healthcare. Do a quick Google and you will find a video of a kidney printing experiment and an early beneficiary of that technology — someone whose bladder was grown in the lab from living cells.
Printing with cartilage or printing custom prosthetic limbs, these things are proper non-sensational uses for this technology.
Those who scoff at these technologies today will be grateful when they get a custom-printed hip from their local hospital in a few years’ time.
3D printing, you see, is not a single, homogenous technology. It is many different things. It can be extraordinary and banal. Right now it is having its popular consciousness moment and all sorts of myths and cliches are popping up.
The first two you will probably encounter are these: the comparison with the way paper printers got cheap and popular and the idea that — any day now — you will be able to print replacement parts for the things that go wrong in your house, normally your washing machine.
The first point has a lot to commend it. Printing did go, pretty quickly, from being an industrial process to being an office-based one to entering the home. Domestic and office printers are small, cheap and ingenious, it is just they never actually work. Printing ink on paper is a very mature, highly developed business, a huge and venerable industry.
And what is your typical experience? Ink costs a fortune, the printer never connects to the computer, it never prints the right thing the first time and occasionally you print 1,000 copies of something when you only wanted one. If you want to imagine 3D printing in the home, think about that.