Printing technology is nothing new and no this isn’t a blog about 15th century Europe, but printing continues to change our world in profound ways. Printing has been a mainstay of the Information Technology industry for decades – it even predates computers (the European printing press being nearly 500 years old). Technology giants such as Hewlett Packard made fortunes in the computer printer business and companies like Apple helped us imagine printing in rich fonts and images – opening up a world of ideas, art, and creativity. Today the printer business is generally viewed as an out of date laggard that is dull and hardly worthy of being called “tech” at all, let alone high tech.
The reality is actually quite different. Advances in printing over the last few years are yet again revolutionizing society – or at least they’re about to. The following breakthroughs in printing are changing our world in ways we can only being to imagine.
3D printing, printing physical three dimensional objects, isn’t exactly new, but it has certainly been in the news lately. This is largely the result of the declining cost of 3D printer technology, which is now nearly as inexpensive as laser printing was 15 years ago. 3D printers generally layer material together by printing one layer on top of the previous – extending the ink jet principle to a third dimension. As the printer adds more and more layers the objects grow from a 2D plane to a 3D object. 3D printing represents a massive shift in the way we make and share designs, ideas, and technology. Already rapid prototyping is being done with 3D printers reducing product development times in areas as diverse as tools, electronics, and even shoes.
This also extends beyond prototyping to production. High end 3D printing technology is enabling the creation of durable long lasting physical items that can be built on common assembly lines that can be rapidly reconfigured completely through software. One hour a factory can be producing chairs, the next it can be wrenches, and after that aircraft parts. This has the potential to replace the complex production techniques of the past that often relied on multi-axis lathes and CNC machines. It also avoids production line downtime during reconfiguration.
From the design side not much needs to change to accommodate this technology, designers can still use CAD (Computer-aided Design) software to build models. The biggest impact is that a prototype can be instantly printed for further testing and refinement. When the design is finalized, the very same CAD models that are used for prototyping can be used in the production runs with the only difference being the material being used for the print (or the printers being used). This may represent the largest shift in the sharing of technology to hit society in generations – the ability to instantly create physical objects from designs created anywhere in the world and shared via the internet. Today 3D printer designs are available for items as diverse as furniture, art, guns, and even spy drones.
This quantum leap in printing technology uses the same basic principles as a laser printer to create genetic sequences. Instead of using different colored toner, these devices uses the nucleotide bases adenine (A), cytosine (C), guanine (G) and thymine (T) – the core bases of DNA. This allows genetic designers to print DNA either for replication or even for completely new strands. To date any custom DNA creation was laborious, error prone, and extraordinarily expensive. DNA printing removes all three of these limitations. The implications of DNA printing are even greater than 3D printing and include genetic storage applications (long term data storage in DNA – something all creatures on earth already have) and the ability to create customized DNA strands, such as bacteria, to be used in anything from bioenergy to medical therapies. Like 3D printing as this technology gets into more hands and becomes more affordable it will increase the number of minds creating innovative and revolutionary applications with DNA. This has the power to change humanity as we know it.
These printing technologies will allow the joining of our digital society with the physical world around us and nature’s biological infrastructure to change the way we live, learn, grow, and communicate. After all that’s sort of what the original printing press did for us nearly five centuries ago.