The hype surrounding 3D printing has consumers and manufacturers buzzing. There have been discussions of printing everything from guns to steaks to entire buildings. NASA even funded the development of a 3D food printer to feed astronauts in space. Everyone wants a piece of the computer-generated pie. And surfers are no exception. Today, from your home, with nothing more than a 3D printer and a digital design file, it's now possible to create functioning fin setups, fin boxes, and plugs for your next session. The insight and knowledge that were once relegated to the minds of shapers and design companies could soon be socialized and downloaded by the masses, clearing the path for a new design renaissance in the sport.
Here's how it works: With a Computer Aided Design (CAD) file acting as a virtual blueprint, 3D printers utilize an array of materials—plastic, metal, and yes, even polyurethane—to turn an idea into a tangible object within a few hours. The process is called additive manufacturing, and in essence, it makes it possible to build a physical 3D object out of thin air. Once you've uploaded your design, the printer first creates a base layer out of your selected material and then adds multiple layers on top of one another until your object takes its final shape. Imagine creating a new fin design from your bedroom in the morning and being able to test it out in an afternoon session.
It's not a matter of if surfboards will one day be self-manufactured through 3D printing, but when.
Creating an entire surfboard using a 3D printer is possible, but not yet practical. According to Paul Spoliansky of 3DSystems, a pioneer firm in the industry, it's not a matter of if surfboards will one day be self-manufactured through 3D printing, but when. "We could create a surfboard from a 3D printer now, but the size of the printer you'd need to create a board would be too expensive and large for most people," said Spolianksy. "It's definitely going to happen. But in the meantime, we're seeing people creating things like fins and fin boxes. It's not theory, people are actually doing it now."
Surprisingly, the technology behind 3D printing dates back nearly 30 years. For the bulk of its lifespan, due to cost, 3D printing was relegated to automakers and the aerospace industry. But in the past five years, the price of the printers has fallen dramatically, making it possible to purchase one for a little over $1,000. When it comes to the cost of self-manufacturing, it's currently estimated to run you around $100 to create a plastic set of three fins.
Although there are some progressive designers already self-manufacturing fins from their homes with 3D printers, the technology has not yet made it to the masses. Before 3D printed fins reach lineups, they'll face a number of obstacles, most of which relate to materials. The majority of the plastics currently available for 3D printing aren't robust enough to hold up in heavy-water conditions, but according to Adrian Barnes of Futures Fins, finding the right material is only a matter of time.
"The only thing lacking right now is finding a plastic material that's stiff enough to hold up to the conditions. We're getting really close to seeing that and I think in the future, we're gonna see a lot of cool development when your backyard shapers start tweaking templates." As Barnes states, with a larger number of design enthusiasts experimenting with new templates, it's easy to envision a future ripe with design innovation.
Although the potential implications of 3D printing are indeed far-reaching, critics cite concerns over intellectual property laws, and don't envision quite so rosy a future. Through websites like Thingiverse.com, the virtual blueprints needed for manufacturing nearly anything are offered up for free, making a mastery of CAD irrelevant. Download the file for your next fin setup and it's yours. Virtual blueprints needed for manufacturing nearly anything are offered up for free, making a mastery of CAD irrelevant. Download the file for your next fin setup and it's yours.
Michael Weinberg, an attorney for Public Knowledge, a group dedicated to open-sourced Internet content, doesn't believe that big businesses will be able to enforce patent infringement and that any attempt would be ill-fated. "Going forward, manufacturers actually have an opportunity to learn from history. It took the music industry a decade, millions of dollars of legal fees, and the lost goodwill of almost its entire customer base before it found the best way to deal with digital disruption. Instead of suing to try and make 3D printing disappear, the best—and only real—strategy is to find a way to embrace and monetize it."
As this technology continues to evolve, perhaps we'll see a future in which the current leaders in fin and board design are able to sell their design files online, mimicking the digital business models of the music and film industries. If the grand predictions of 3D printing hold, not only will we witness dramatic changes to the way we manufacture and use our equipment, but that change could very well happen in your own living room.