x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

Trendspotting: 3D printers

We take a look at new technology, specifically 3D printers, which will allow anyone to make and customise objects at home that once had to come from a factory.

A woman inspects a 3D printer, the likes of which may one day see us printing food and other products at home. Wang Fang / Xinhua Press / Corbis
A woman inspects a 3D printer, the likes of which may one day see us printing food and other products at home. Wang Fang / Xinhua Press / Corbis

When the internet became commonplace in people's homes in the late 1990s, it brought about what has been, surely, one of the greatest flowerings of creativity in all of human history. We learnt something amazing: give everyday people the right tools and a platform on which to publish, and they will write blogs that fascinate, shoot video that entertains and provide news commentary that informs. The content they - by which I mean you, we, all of us - have created has changed the world.

It's been an adventure. But so far, this avalanche of creation - and consequent consumer choice - has been restricted to content. Decide that you want to buy, say, a new coffee mug, or a set of speakers, or a Star Wars figurine and the world starts to look a whole lot more traditional. No avalanche of new choices here. You go to the coffee mug store (OK, it might be online now), choose a mug you like from the limited selection, and live with it.

But that could be about to change. Experts say a revolution in the way we design and make physical objects is around the corner; and it's set to be even bigger than the media revolution we've just lived through. They call it the maker movement. And it may soon be in your home.

At the heart of the maker movement are new technologies that make it possible for anyone to manufacture objects that once had to be factory-made. Specifically, 3D printers, which - much as they sound - take a digital representation of an object and "print" a real, physical copy. Such 3D printers can print objects in plastic, glass and gold, building up the object layer after layer by extruding particles from a fine nozzle. Right now, popular home 3D printers such as the MakerBot (www.makerbot.com) cost around US$2,000 (Dh7,300).

The implications are vast. Imagine a world 10 years from now, in which we are designing and 3D printing our own designed objects. And imagine what it means for traditional manufacturing, when we are freely sharing those designs with one another, downloading whatever we like, and printing it at home. Hold on, though: that future has already arrived; at one online platform called Thingiverse (www.thingiverse.com), people are sharing 3D designs for everything from a plastic "cow silhouette" to a "snap together lamp" to a V12 engine. Need a "bike light glare hood"? You're in the right place.

Of course, the maker movement and 3D printing have a long way to go. Technologists say this generation of 3D printers are to the next what the dot matrix is to today's laser printer. Soon enough, we may be able to home-print complex objects, such as mobile phones; one day, we may even be printing food. Feel like a steak? Just download one from the local supermarket and fire up the printer.

Should this come to pass, our relationship with the physical objects in our lives will change beyond recognition. The mass-produced object may become as much a relic of the past as the telegram. What will be the need for a million factory-made coffee mugs, all exactly the same, when each of us can design our own, unique mug, or download a creation thought up by our neighbour, or someone in New Zealand?

We've become used to near-infinite variety and choice online. Now, get ready for the YouTube-ification of everything.