Microsoft announced on Wednesday that their update to their newest operating system Windows 8 will have integrated, native support for one of the newest and fastest-growing technologies: 3D Printing. The update, called Windows 8.1, will feature, among other things, programming that allows users to print from applications to a 3D Printer just as easily as one has been able to print to a 2D Printer for years now.
Printing the Future
3D Printing is more than just adding ink to a piece of paper. Although it’s called “printing” it has little to do with print itself. 3D Printing is more appropriately compared to other forms of manufacturing than it is with 2D Printing, but a crucial difference separates it from anything else before. Where most forms of manufacturing – like crafting a statuette, or carving wood – rely on chipping away at a larger block of material, 3D Printing creates the object by adding to it. 3D Printers work by layering materials onto each other in sheets – like cross-sections – based on digital plans.
This difference in creation allows for unprecedented possibilities. On the less advanced side, you can use 3D Printers to create physical models of varying sizes, from cosmetics like your favorite pixar character to practical uses like building a full architectural model. And on the more advanced side, the technology has the sort of absurd applications that one might expect from an episode of Star Trek, like reconstructing damaged fossils or even creating replacement organs for human transplant from scratch.
Even outside of the grandiose scientific uses, 3D Printing is already seeing business models emerge that utilize the technology. Many companies have begun using 3D Printing for rapid and flexible prototyping and development. Other companies make 3D Printing their whole business, like ones that allow you to create custom phone cases based on your own design. Nokia has even released the design for their basic case just so that customers can modify it for use in 3D Printing.
Out of the Factory and Onto the Desktop
This new move by Microsoft aims to make 3D Printing at home a common activity. As it stands currently, to utilize a 3D Printer the user has to manipulate the file with multiple different programs before loading into yet another program that connects to the printer. If these plans from Microsoft go through, any application that uses 3D modelling should be able to print directly to a connected 3D Printer the same way that any 2D application can send a document to your 2D Printer.
Microsoft has confirmed that the code for this integration will be open-source, so any user or developer who wants to will be able to look up the code and provide support for the 3D Printing within his own application, so that the market for 3D Printing will remain open and malleable.
These days, 2D Printers are ubiquitous. No one hands in a hand-written essay in colleges these days, only typed ones. Maybe ten years in the future, art and architecture students will be printing their sculptures and models the same way. And compared to printing a new liver or kidney, that future may just be the tip of the 3D Iceberg.