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The rise of 3D – How printers became sexy

Posted by Alex Warren on 17th March 2014

Printers aren’t sexy. I’m sorry, they’re just not. They’re too old to be state of the art, but too young to be considered retro. If anything, printers are just functional grey boxes that sit in corners gathering dust and occasionally spluttering out a sickly whirring noise or unwanted sheet of paper.

At least that’s what I used to think.

Over the last 12 months something incredible happened… printers became sexy. What was always a dull peripheral has suddenly become a key talking point amongst the IT community. Ever since the mainstream launch of 3D printing you can’t open a copy of Wired magazine without seeing at least three articles on why the new wave of 3D printers are going to revolutionise the world.

In the last year alone we’ve seen an astounding array of potential applications for 3D printers. We’ve witnessed the first 3D printed camera, the first 3D printed guitar, even the world’s first 3D printed clothing. We’ve even started to find humanitarian uses for 3D printers, with many commentators highlighting the opportunity for mass-produced hospital equipment and medical supplies. It seems like whatever the problem, 3D printing will have the solution.

While we’ve certainly come a long way from the days of black and white dot matrix printing, we shouldn’t be so quick to forget the importance of 2D printers within our daily lives. If anything, the recent attention surrounding 3D printing has actually helped spark a newfound interest in the technology’s two-dimensional older brother. In fact, we’re even seeing efforts to reapply traditional printing technology within new and potentially humanitarian markets.

Recently, research from Cambridge University has taken this idea to the extreme. Having examined the inner workings of a 2D inkjet printer, researchers used the technology to rearrange and ‘reprint’ optical nerve cells. Given time and funding, this project could prove a significant step towards finding a cure for blindness. Not bad for a whirring dust collector.

Still, despite all these medical marvels and miraculous promises, there’s always someone who has to come along and ruin it for the rest of us. In the case of 3D printing, that someone chose to take this sight-curing, music-making, cost saving technology, and use it to print off a handgun.

That’s what happened last year when Texas Law student Cody Wilson decided to upload the blueprints to the world’s first 3D printed firearm. Nicknamed ‘The Liberator’, the firearm quickly grabbed the attention of the world’s news media, and all the inspirational rhetoric that surrounded 3D printing was shrouded by a dark cloud.

Suddenly, we lived in a world where anyone, anywhere could freely download a firearm. And not just a firearm, a plastic firearm that remains undetected by traditional security systems. Following this incident, printers weren’t just sexy anymore, they were sexy and dangerous… very much the James Bond of the IT peripherals market.

Still, the press does have a tendency to make mountains out of molehills. If anything, tracking the IP address of someone downloading a firearm online is far easier than attempting to trace a ‘traditional’ weapon on the streets. Either way, whatever their uses (good or bad), it’s clear that thanks to 3D, the humble printer is here to stay.

Alex Warren

Alex Warren is an expert in AI and marketing technologies. He has published two books, Spin Machines, and Technoutopia and is regularly quoted in PR, marketing and technology media. In his role as a Senior Account Director at Wildfire he helps tech brands build creative strategies that deliver results and cut through the marketing BS.