Researchers are already working on the replacement for 3d printing: rapid assemblers.
Most of us are still in the process of fully embracing 3D printing, but some forward thinking people are already working on the next thing. Wait, there’s something after 3d printing? Apparently so. Hod Lipson and Jon Hiller at Cornell University (Edit: specifically the Cornell Computational Synthesis Laboratory) are developing the early stages of technology for rapid assemblers.
Rapid assemblers are based on the idea of a voxel, or 3D pixel. These extremely small building blocks would be pre-manufactured with specific properties and then combined by a rapid assembler to make materials with custom properties. For example, a material could theoretically be made that would only allow light to pass through from one direction, or even a material that was hard in certain areas and soft in others.
Perhaps most excitingly, the researchers have successfully tested a bonding agent for the voxels that could be dissolved when the product reached the end of it’s life cycle. This would allow the voxels to be reused for an entirely different product.
If 3D printing is a step toward uniting digital design with physical manufacture, then rapid assemblers would combine the two into a seamless whole of true digital manufacturing. Anything that could be designed on a computer could be manufactured with any properties in any quantity, bringing mass customization to an unprecedented level.
The future is fun, isn’t it?