There will be a worldwide revolution in your lifetime. It is one that will shake the foundations of society as we know it. In fact, it has, without much notice, already begun. And its name is 3D Printing. What? 3D Printing you say? Ridiculous. Surely you jest. How can something as trivial as printing change my life? And yet it will; dramatically so.
Through several different technologies 3D printers can print just about anything. Instead of the old printing as you know it, 3D printers can create solid objects from a digital model. These printers can create an object by laying down successive layers of materials – millions of them. The materials are fused with a laser. The printer adds successive layers of material until you have a model of what you are trying to create. The model can be very detailed and precise. But the real revolutionary aspect of this technology is in the hundreds of materials one can use to create. To date, they include plastics, aluminum, titanium steel, food (yes food) and even biological cells.
What we can do now
Companies such as Concord and Boeing are already using 3-D printing to create certain airplane parts. Lockheed developed a similar process to create an airplane wing at substantially less time and cost. Even now industry is printing auto parts (including some near complete cars), furniture, clothing, tools, buildings and much more. A few examples are as follows:
The UK University of Southampton recently designed and printed the SULSA unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV). It has a wingspan of two meters and can travel at speeds of up to 100 miles per hour. Others are also printing small UAVs for atmospheric research. Because these planes are printed with embeded electronics and moving parts, designers can create shapes and structures at a fraction of the cost of traditional manufacturing.
Italian inventor Enrico Dini created a 3D printer that uses a magnesium based material to bind sand particles together creating sedimentary stone in a matter of minutes. Nature’s process takes hundreds of years. Stone can easily be molded to specific shapes avoiding the need to cut. Mr. Dini can construct a building four times faster than conventional means at less than half the cost.
3D printing is used to make reverse copies of limbs for prosthetic devices. So if a person suffers the loss of a limb, a near exact copy can be made as a replacement. In fact, 3D printing is used to make many bone replacements including jawbones and hips. The laser imaging process ensures that the replacement part has all the same articulated joints and groves needed for tendons, nerves, and veins.
How about clothes? No problem. 3D printing has recently been used by the fashion industry to create everything from bikini’s to Lady Gaga’s dresses (those are strange). But the point is that nylon can be molded into minuscule threads and shaped in any fashion. Eventually the printing process could customize clothes by using a body scan to create an exact fit for the customer.
Are you hungry? 3-D printing takes foods like chocolate, cheese, ground turkey and celery and makes them into new and exciting shapes. A food printer developed by Cornell University students uses softer foods which can be poured into a print head and then pumped out via syringe to form intricate design. Future prospects for food printing are even better.
The Coming Revolution
Amazing things are happening as we enter the cusp of this coming revolution. Even more exciting revolutionary changes are on the horizon.
If you can print jawbones, hips, and car parts; why stop there? How about food? Food is made up of carbons, fats, and fibers. It can, therefore, be printed. Dutch scientist Dr. Kjeld vanBommel gave a talk at TED detailing processes for printing food that could be customized for specific diets. There will come a time in the not too distant future when one can program a home food printer to print a healthy (or not) diet individually customized for each member of the family, or starving village.
But food is only one small part of the revolution. Researchers at Germany’s Fraunhofer Institute have begun printing blood vessels. They have printed artificial biological molecules that are formed with a laser into the shape of actual capillaries and veins. So the question comes, If you can do capillaries and veins can you print something really cool, like an actual human organ? Well, it looks like the answer will be yes.
Dr. Anthony Atala at the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine received worldwide fame when he became the first person to grow a human organ – a bladder – in a laboratory and implant it in a human being. He recently upped the game by printing a human kidney using living cells. The human organ was described as a “prototype” so there still needs to be a lot more research in this area. But the potential for advancing medical science is beyond extraordinary.
The game changing applications for 3D printers goes well past medical science. NASA recently financed a study for launching and operating a “3D printer satellite” in outer space. Antennas and telescopes can only be so big because they have to be folded and jammed into the nose cone of a rocket. Maybe there is a different way? Maybe mile long antennas can be simply printed in space and deployed while on orbit. One could envision 3D printers using raw materials from the moon, asteroids, space junk, etc. to build spacecraft and habitats. The possibilities in the Final Frontier are pretty close to endless.
The post amazing aspect of The Coming Revolution is that it will happen in our lifetime. Within the next 20 years this technology will be pervasive in human society. Only the imagination and availability of raw materials will limit people’s ability to print anything from teeth to weapons (yes, there are also some frightening aspects of this technology). With a basic 3D printer now selling for less than $1,000, a future of globally distributed industrial production seems inevitable. The effects on human society will be nothing less than “revolutionary”.