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Printing Industry Exchange ( is pleased to have Steven Waxman writing and managing the Printing Industry Blog. As a printing consultant, Steven teaches corporations how to save money buying printing, brokers printing services, and teaches prepress techniques. Steven has been in the printing industry for thirty-three years working as a writer, editor, print buyer, photographer, graphic designer, art director, and production manager.

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Custom Printing: What to Print on Your 3D Printer

Real-life stories about 3D custom printing are beginning to resemble science fiction. They’re also beginning to reflect deeper questions about what 3D printing will be good for and in what directions the technology might progress.

I recently read two short articles in Digital Trends about this new technology (“Nokia releases free case designs you print yourself—3D printer sold separately” by Joshua Sherman and “A $300k 3D-printed burger exists, because why not?” by Natt Garun). Both raise compelling issues.

Nokia’s Phone Case

To quote the aforementioned article, “Nokia has released the 3D specs for its Lumina 820 shell, allowing anyone with the right tools to create a 3D case for their phone.”

I think Nokia’s releasing these specs reflects three goals on their part:

  1. To embrace a technology Nokia believes will be significant within the near future.
  2. To present Nokia as being technologically savvy (and thus to increase brand awareness: i.e., marketing).
  3. To have fun (i.e., to position Nokia as being “cool”: i.e., marketing).

I know I sound cynical. But companies don’t spend money to link themselves with a new technology in their customers’ minds unless they believe the technology will prosper. So I see this nod to 3D custom printing by Nokia as portending a bright future for 3D printing.

Moreover, the Digital Trends article by Joshua Sherman notes that:

“In reality, anyone can already make a case for their phone if they really wanted, but the process would be extremely difficult as you’d need to (probably through trial and error) make a case based on your own measurements, and not those from the manufacturer.”

Think about it. Companies (and even entire governments) work hard to keep proprietary information under wraps (including blueprints, videos, and computer code). Acquiring information used to avoid the trial-and-error process of making something yourself dramatically empowers the end user. Being able to print out your own phone case (if you have the reasonably inexpensive printing equipment) changes the landscape of retail sales. Think of all the clear plastic bubble packages containing colorful phone cases that will no longer need to be shipped from the Far East to Target, Best Buy, and Walmart.

The Digital Trends article goes on to say:

“It won’t be long until communities play with the design to make their very own cases with crazy things like E Ink displays built into them, crazy new colors and designs, or something even more amazing.”

In the past, if you acquired digital source code, you could mock-up, duplicate, and distribute a computer program that someone else had toiled countless hours to initially create (they called this industrial espionage). Or, if a government acquired blueprints or video of an enemy’s stealth bomber, it could create its own version of the aircraft and thus level the playing field (or battlefield).

But acquiring freely distributed source code to create an “object” from a custom printing device goes a step further. And given the propensity of hackers to alter computer source code to tailor digital information to their own needs, it is clear that digital specifications for objects like this Nokia phone case will be hacked, altered, and customized.

I don’t think this is necessarily bad. I don’t even think that giving away proprietary information is necessarily bad. It just changes the landscape of retail sales, potentially eliminating brick-and-mortar stores and warehouses, and bringing “object creation” into the home.

After all, in 1987 the Macintosh II and the first generation of Linotronic RIPs and imagesetters brought typesetting and design together, took them out of printing plants and design studios, and placed them squarely on your desktop. Did that mean that every secretary was as good a designer as Herb Lubalin?

And then the Internet made news and classified advertising “want to be free”–until people started to realize that you get what you pay for, and digital information resources started to erect paywalls to charge for their services.

So the essence of my argument is that giving away specifications allowing individuals to produce their own commodities clearly will change commerce.

3D Hamburgers

To quote from the second article, “A $300k 3D printed burger exists, because why not?”:

“In the future, cows and pigs may be roaming free now that we’ve got a 3D printer along the way that’s capable of spitting out slabs of edible meat.”

This quote refers to Modern Meadow, a startup that fuses “the process of bioprinting with edible food.” Granted, this is an expensive process at the moment (it will become less expensive over time, just as other economies of scale have brought down the cost of other manufacturing processes). It is also reminiscent of work scientists have been doing to print actual body organs with specialized stem cells (which is what Modern Meadow does). The new part of the paradigm is the concept of printing food.

The process is mind expanding. Those who condemn the slaughter of animals for food won’t have to settle for soy products like tofu. And algorithms could be written to increase or lessen the amount of fat in a piece of meat.

The Implications

Implications exceed anything your commercial printing supplier can offer. After all, we’ve gone way beyond printing text and images on a page using offset ink, toners, and inkjet ink. We’ve even moved beyond printing physical objects with layer upon layer of liquid plastic. Now we’ve entered into the realm of custom printing body parts that (hopefully) won’t be rejected by your immune system. And printing food that won’t make you sick (and that actually may be nutritious, tasty, and safe). Wow.

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