ShareOnce, 3-D printers were expensive, elite tools wielded by high-end designers who used them to prototype products like mobile phones or airplane parts. But now they’re emerging into the mainstream: You can buy one for about $500 to $3,000, and many enthusiasts, schools and libraries already have. Sometimes they print objects they design, but you can also make copies of physical objects by “scanning” them—using your smartphone or camera to turn multiple pictures into a 3-D model, which can then be printed over and over. Do you want a copy of, say, the Auguste Rodin statue Cariatide à l’urne—or maybe just some replacement plastic game pieces for Settlers of Catan? You’re in luck. Helpful folks have already scanned these objects and put them online.
As 3-D printing gets cheaper and cheaper, how will it change society? What will it mean to be able to save and share physical objects—and make as many copies as we’d like? One way to ponder that is to consider the remarkable impact of the first technology that let everyday people duplicate things en masse: The Xerox photocopier.
For centuries, if you weren’t going to the trouble of publishing an entire book, copying a single document was a slow, arduous process, done mostly by hand. Inventors had long sought a device to automate the process, with limited success. Thomas Jefferson used a pantograph: As he wrote, a wooden device connected to his pen manipulated another pen in precisely the same movements, creating a mechanical copy. Steam-engine pioneer James Watt created an even cruder device that would take a freshly written page and mash another sheet against it, transferring some of the ink in reverse. By the early 20th century, the state of the art was the mimeograph machine, which used smelly ink to produce a small set of copies that got weaker with each duplication. It was imperfect. (Read more.)