3D printing has been receiving an increasing amount of press of late, from advancements in technology which continue to reduce the cost of these new-fangled printers, to the more notorious attempts of and the subsequent lgeislation of printing firearms.
Whether we like it or not (and there are those who feel the potential dangers outweigh the positives), 3D printers will soon be a common device in most households, even those with a more modest disposable income.
Whilst I’m not lucky enough to own a 3D printer of my own and likely won’t for some time, a relatively new mobile app, Sculptio, which caters to owners of 3d printers, recently caught my eye.
Sculptio allows designers to submit their own 3D models via the app so that they can be downloaded by other 3D printer owners and subsequently printed from their machine. In addition to user uploads, the Sculptio database is continually updated with models from the top commercial 3D designers, giving 3D printer owners an ever updated supply of high quality models ripe for printing from home. And of course, even talented designers who don’t own a printer may create their own models for upload. Think of a potter launching a profitable pottery business that comprises some of the world’s most sought after pieces, but creating them without the use of a wheel.
The result is an ever-evolving database of 3D models at consumers’ fingertips, all of which have been designed specifically to be printed in 3D without having to leave your home or pay for delivery to your door.
Aside from the 3D printing aspect which inspired the creation of Sculptio, you may be forgiven for thinking that there’s nothing particularly novel about the idea of sharing 3D designs through a mobile app. And, at the outset, there isn’t; the app simply borrows the idea from the standard online sharing model and adds the 3D printing stamp to it. However, it’s the growing potential for opensource collaboration that makes 3D print sharing apps like Sculptio an exciting prospect, and which inspired me to write this article.
Firstly, a new breed of entrepreneurs is likely just around the corner – those who can fill a niche creating and uploading technical or artistic 3D designs that cater to a large demographic. For a nominal fee, they can be downloaded and printed at home or on a business premises. Need a chair with ample back support for a new member of staff? Download the design and print one. Lost the lid for your coffee pot? Go right ahead, someone’s likely got that design covered for you.
Physical store owners should take note, for if they feel that ecommerce websites have led to a decline in the performance of their bricks and mortar stores, then they’re in for an even nastier shock within the next few years once the 3D printing entrepreneurs make their mark.
The notion of crowdsourcing projects always excites me, but none more so than potentially immense projects that have been realised by tens, hundreds and maybe even thousands of people. The European Space Agency’s Gaia project is one such example that tickles my fancy – mapping over a billion objects in our galaxy through its namesake satellite, ESA is inviting scientists and astronomy enthusiasts from across the globe to help process the 200 terabytes of information that will be generated during the mission’s tenure. The result will be the most detailed map ever compiled listing all known objects in our galaxy, as well as a huge collection of smaller, previously undetected bodies. The mass collaboration will allow for the extremely fast cataloguing and processing of those objects, thanks to the efforts of thousands of participants.
But now turn your focus away from the idea of data processing on a global scale, and instead to the notion of crowdsourcing in general – the idea of pooling together the skills and resources of many people from across the world.
But what does all this have to do with 3D printing, you may ask yourself? How can the 3D model can be brought into the equation – the idea of introducing real-life, physical 3D structures to a crowdsourcing model – and what are the potential applications?
Websites like Kickstarter have inspired a generation of would-be entrepreneurs and designers who lack the funding, expertise and tools, but through the power of crowdsourced funding have allowed them to realise their projects thanks to the input of those that do. I believe that apps like Sculptio are no exception – crowd-sourced development projects will almost certainly play an increasing part of modern society, and with the addition of 3D printing – the fabrication of tangible, physical forms – who knows where the future could lead us.
Whether they realise it, the developers of 3D printing apps like Sculptio could actually be paving the way for large-scale construction projects that comprise the input of artists, engineers and scientists from across the globe. The finished design could be something simple and unassuming, such as a large static sculpture whose numerous parts have been designed by its many collaborators, or a far more ambitious project such as a car or a functional piece of architecture, the various elements of which were designed by the respective experts in that field. Traditionally, such projects typically require either hefty government funding, or a wealthy backer who believes strongly in the project from the outset. Both these things are incredibly hard to acquire.
With crowdsourced 3D collaboration, and with the relevant advancements in printing technology which are just around the corner, the various parts of a project designed by each respective designer could all, in theory, be printed at a dedicated 3D print-house, and then assembled to complete the finished design.
Imagine the designs that could be possible to realise in the next decade: structures that could theoretically be launched into earth’s orbit, eco-friendly housing parts, robotic devices – there really is no limit to what crowd sourced 3D printing designers could achieve once metal 3D printing becomes more readily available and the full potentials of the technology become available to a wider audience.
While we’ll have to wait and see as to what extent apps like Sculptio will change the way we live, I’m almost certain those changes will begin to take place in 2014.