3D PRINTING: THE FUTURE OF CONSTRUCTION? By Mhairi Opalka - 31st October 2013

Last week, police in Manchester arrested a man on suspicion of manufacturing ‘homemade’ gun components using a 3D printer. With the falling cost of 3D printing equipment rapidly bringing it within reach of both the commercial and domestic markets, what implications will this arrest have for a technology that offers such potential to the manufacturing industries?

3D printing technology uses CAD software to build up complex solid objects using layer upon layer of material, usually plastic. Fully finished, functioning objects can be created in one print run without any further assembly required.

This enables product prototypes to be produced quickly and easily, without the significant costs normally associated with developing one-off samples. Most importantly, 3D printing makes it as cheap to create single items as it is to produce thousands, thus undermining the fundamental manufacturing principle of ‘economies of scale’. Although the relatively slow speed of current 3D printers means the capability for mass production is not quite there yet, the technology is constantly developing and it may not be far off the horizon.

For the construction industry, the possibilities for 3D printing could be even more exciting. Research is already underway to develop 3D printers large enough to construct commercial and private habitation in around 20 hours, with built-in plumbing and electrical facilities, in one continuous build.

With minimum labour costs, very little waste and rapid construction times, it’s easy to see the appeal of ‘building printing’. It’s even been suggested that 3D printing technology could be used to create extra-terrestrial structures on the moon or other planets where human labour would be difficult.

So how does this relate to the arrest in Manchester? Gun lobbyists have been warning for some time that 3D printing technology could spell the end of global gun control if it becomes possible to produce firearms cheaply and easily at home. Indeed, the BBC’s home affairs correspondent Dominic Casciani has argued that the manufacture of guns through 3D printing is ‘almost inevitable’ because of the relatively few firearms in circulation in the UK.

For me, this seems a dark use of a technology that has such promise. Perhaps the real question then is how do we, as a society, adapt to a future in which individuals and corporations have the potential to create almost anything within their reach?

Tea break sized updates and news direct to your inbox.

By signing up you agree to receive communications from us in line with our privacy policy