I’m not huge fan of Jay Leno, but this is a great summary of some of the cool aspects of 3D scanning and 3D printers. He uses a scan/print setup to reproduce a part for an old steam car which hasn’t been made since 1910. But in my mind, he missed the most revolutionary aspect of this production system.
Sure, you can make a 3D model of a part you already possess, but that’s just an evolution of 2D scanning techniques. And 3D printers, with their ability to make these 3D models into physical, plastic objects, are simply amazing. But for the most part it is just an evolution of the same techniques used in plotters like the ones I used in drafting class in high school. Both of these technologies are amazing, and I’m not trying to downplay how cool it is to see a functional copy of a physical object made.. When this technology is truly affordable, I’m sure I’ll be tempted to dive in and screw around with it. But there is nothing particularly revolutionary about any of this.
In my mind, what is revolutionary is that after you take this physical, tangible, object and scan it into the machine, it becomes content. Content which can be shared just like movies, music, writings, ideas, and source code online. Sure, it’s cool as hell that Jay Leno can reproduce a broken steam valve a century after production was ceased and restore his car to working order. But what is even cooler is that once he is confident in his copy, he can share that 3D model online with anyone else interested in this part, who (with access to a CNC), can create their own replacement part.
Once the information is in the computer, it is just as malleable as other digital media. While it’s not as cool as the Linux Kernel or The Grey Album, one could envision a hacker in his garage taking that 3D model and trying to improve it. This hacker is able to use a common 3D modeling package to tweak the existing part, printing up their own plastic test piece to test it for fit, and taking it to a CNC to cut one out of metal to actually test it in operation. If it does happen to improve the part, they can then go ahead and share their changes with the world again. They could even take their improved model, 3D print it, then take a mold from it for mass-production, selling the parts to people without all this equipment.
Maybe this is just obvious to me and others with a particularly nerdy perspective.. I still find it amazing though how computers and networking are fundamentally changing the way with think of information. Hell, it’s fundamentally changing what we consider information. The 3D scanner takes something physical and turns it into information. And as we’ve seen time and time again, once something is information it will find a life online which no one had imagined.