Life as we know it is being changed by yet another new technology, 3D printing. Last year, a Makerbot store opened on the main street of our small town. In a personal demonstration, my grandchildren sat in a round room as cameras scanned 360-degree specifications, to create solid images of them. We watched as the printer built three-dimensional likenesses from the digital file in the filament colors they chose: one red, one glow-in-the-dark green. And during a recent trip to London, we chanced on a jeweler who printed this 3D necklace to my specifications as we watched. These are simple examples of printed objects. There are more meaningful ways in which 3D technology offers new possibilities. Here are a few of the applications and implications I find especially intriguing.


BIO PRINTING. Scientists are able to use printers to create tiny sheets of living tissue. 3D printed organs are becoming a real option, creating functioning replacement body parts like skin, ears, kidneys, bladders, livers and hearts. Soon stories of patients dying while waiting for donor organs will be history. Instead, a scanner will create a volumetric analysis of the desired organ tissue - layer by layer - engineering it to fit the patient's own anatomy and making it from the patient's own cells. It currently takes about 7 hours to print a kidney. And there are already successful outcomes.

SPACE PRINTING. NASA has its own 3D Printing Chief, Niki Werkheiser. In a recent interview, she says, “The bottom line is being able to print anything you need in orbit. When we live on the ground, we don’t think much about running to Home Depot if something breaks, but when you’re in space, even tiny things make a difference. 3D printing technology will revolutionize space travel by allowing astronauts to be away for years on exploration missions without relying on ground control.” NASA is aiming to introduce 3D printers into spacecraft within two years. So far, Werkheiser’s team has produced several rocket components, and a small wrench. They're also working on more exciting projects. Her theory is that astronauts could use the printers to build themselves habitats on extraterrestrial surfaces. The space agency is also funding a Texas-based company, which is researching printing food. It has already produced prototype results in the form of printed pizza. 

HOUSE PRINTING. 3D printing technology and its applications are being used for dwellings here on earth too. A Chinese company is using 3D printed blocks - made from a mix of sand, concrete and glass fiber - to build inexpensive, quickly assembled houses. A giant 3D printer builds ten houses in just one day.

SUPERCAR PRINTING. Kevin Czinger created a modular printed metal supercar. 3D technology limits the cost and environmental damage of making cars. It radically reduces the amount of material required to produce a car, and the parts are put together by nodes and carbon tubes to scale up to a massive structure. This is a welcome alternative to the amount of materials and energy it takes to create large machines in traditional manufacturing - significantly reducing the carbon footprint. When you combine this advantage with high performance and futuristic design, the printed supercar is appealing. Divergent Microfactories, the company that produced it, believes they will create a renaissance in car manufacturing. (I wonder if they'll print one for me in red.) It’s interesting that NASCAR already uses 3D printing to make spare parts and to be responsive to race car drivers' spontaneous design changes.

LOCAL PRINTING. In the next decade, having large factories in remote places will be dated. As 3D Hubs co-founder, Bram de Zwart, asks, “Why would you put a thousand machines in one place when you can put one machine in a thousand places?”  Instead of worrying about manufacturing, inventory and distribution, companies could focus on design and marketing, and certify neighborhood 3D printing operations to guarantee quality and uniformity. Design specifications can be altered easily, so we consumers could use an app on our computers or smart phones to customize our sneakers, sun glasses, toys, tools, door knobs, spare parts - you name it. Most things could be printed locally so we could pick them up in our supercars, or have our packages dropped off by a printed drone. Of course, the most local printing would be on our own home 3D printers!

Everyone is taking note of the 3D printing phenomena. The World Economic Forum commented last year, “Distributed manufacturing is one of the most important technology trends to watch. It is expected to have a mighty impact on jobs, geopolitics and the climate.” Siemens predicts that in the next five years, 3D printing will get 50 percent cheaper and five times faster. Gartner Group figures the 3D printing market, just $1.6 billion in 2015, will rocket to $13.4 billion by 2018. 

Although I've chosen only a few examples, doesn't the promise of 3D printing boggle the mind? These are mere glimpses into the exciting future, and I'm learning that it is more present than we know.


Sources: Dr Anthony Atala, Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine. Newsweek interview with NASA’s 3D Printing Chief Niki Werkheiser. NASCAR press. Bram de Zwart. Kevin Czinger. Divergent Microfactories. MIT News. Reuters.