What if you could press a "print" button and have a single printer create your iPhone? While I have a hard time believing such a process will ever be financially viable for you or I to do at home, what if Apple could do that at an industrial level? What if Apple could just print iPhones at every store, rather than having them shipped from China?
This week's articles on small scale and custom manufacturing got me thinking about 3-D printers and how they could revolutionize where and how our products are manufactured. Up to now, the limitation with 3-D printing has been that, if you want to build an item with various components, those components had to be manually inserted into a shell during the printing process . This was extremely inefficient because the printing process was interrupted and, despite the printer's automated process, an external operator was still needed to place in the additional component. Furthermore, this process necessitated a broader inventory than the printer's standard "inks".
Printing Complex Components
Two recent advancements in 3-D printing have made the dream of a print out iPhone closer to reality. The first, pioneered by Xerox, has allowed for the printing of conductors, semi-conductors, and resisters directly into the printed objects. The processes lays down a thin film of silver 5 nanometers thick. At that minuscule quantity, silver is inexpensive, a better conductor than copper, and can be applied with essentially zero waste .
The second advancement is from our own backyard, the collaboration of Disney Research Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University's HCI Institute. In a paper from October, 2012, the researchers demonstrated how a version of fiber optics can be printed into objects to form rudimentary screens and switches. The video below shows their progress .
These screens are not iPhone quality but they are a step in the right direction. More than the screens, the switch capabilities may be the most useful idea for printing in 2012. As the video shows, the switches can be manipulated to created a wide variety of usable features in printed objects already available.
I still have many questions regarding the viability of printed electronics. How good can the quality become? How low will the prices fall? How functional will the products be?
I also have a number of production oriented questions for such products. How long will it take to produce each product? Will printing produce a cost savings over traditional manufacturing? At what scale will/can products be printed?
Ultimately, I am unsure if printed goods will every replace the manufactured consumer products we use today. Still, I do believe that customized printing may eventually help maintain and build specialized technical equipment used by governments and large businesses. In those cases, printing certain parts may be vastly more cost effective and secure than having them built and shipped from another location. Until then, we may have to settle for more printed items like we have seen so far... cheap plastic crap.
On second thought, maybe these printer gurus are on to something.
 "Print Me a Phone: New techniques used to embed electronics in products." The Economist, Technology and Science, July 28, 2012. Internet; Available from http://www.economist.com/node/21559593
 Brockmeyer, Eric and Karl Willis and Scott Hudson and Ivan Pupyrev. "Printed Optics: 3D Printing of Embedded Optical Elements for Interactive Devices." UIST, October 7-9, 2012. Internet; Available from http://www.disneyresearch.com/research/projects/PrintedOptics/printedoptics-paper.pdf