Printing Our Future in 3D

June 25, 2014

3D printing has been trending in the news the last few years, and for good reason. Imagine the potential of "printing" a new fashion line, a fine work of art, frame and all, or even replacement skin and other organs. That’s what lies just over the horizon in the world of 3D printing. Today, new printers can help consumers and businesses create a whole spectrum of products previously difficult or impossible to make. Inexpensive, consumer-grade printers enable individuals to create lines of plastic trinkets and jewelry; some entrepreneurial people are creating livelihoods selling these items! An article in the Wall Street Journal earlier this week reviews a 3D printer for home use and features a photo of the printer overflowing with colorful and artfully designed toys and objects.


Companies are developing more precise printers for the biotech industry, making it possible for researchers to print 3D structures of living cells that can be transplanted into patients. Already, patients have successfully accepted 3D printed bladders, and there’s speculation that in a few years, patients could have new skin cells "printed" directly onto them. (Didn’t I read that in a  sci-fi story somewhere?)


Along the complexity continuum from printing toys to creating human organs, plenty of opportunities exist for businesses to use 3D printing technology effectively. Take prototyping for example: traditionally, manufacturers spend weeks or months creating a physical prototype of their product. But if they could create a 3D digital prototype that they could send directly to a printer, the time and cost would drop drastically. I wonder if one day GM will be printing cars! Even if the prototype needed alterations, it would take days rather than weeks to correct the product’s 3D model and print it out again.


Though this technology still has its setbacks– materials are fragile and resource-expensive, and printers have yet to be standardized– it is very likely that with a little more time and research, 3D printing will alter the world in which we live and work. Another Industrial Revolution is coming. 3D printers designed for home and small business use range from $500 to $10,000. Higher-grade industrial printers can cost up to $170,000. But these prices are bound to come down as economies of scale bend the cost curve.


For an in-depth look at the future of 3D printing technology, I recommend the Smithsonian’s article on 3D printers here


A more recent article about 3D printed objects that can change their shape and other recent 3D printing breakthroughs is also available from the Smithsonian.


Any thoughts on or experiences working with 3D printers? Feel free to leave a comment below. Thanks for reading!


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