When an engineer named Chuck Hall first dreamed up the idea of printing three-dimensional objects back in the early 1980s, it probably seemed to many people like something out of a particularly far-fetched sci-fi novel [source: Ponsford and Glass]. But since then, 3-D printing — which involves sending a 3-D design to a special machine that piles layers of raw materials onto one another — has not only become a reality, but a game-changer that promises to remake our world as radically as the steam engine, electricity and the computer once did [sources: Anthony, Hoffman].
Not only will 3-D printers allow manufacturers to slash the time it takes to design and make a product, but the machines can enable the creation of complex shapes and structures that weren't previously feasible. They may even lead us into a new industrial age where we won't need factories and assembly lines to produce many items. Instead, a designer may transmit plans for products — from airplane parts to clothing and toys — directly to the end-users' own printers [source: Cohen].
Already, 3-D printing has been embraced by big companies such as Ford, which is printing the engine cover for its 2015 Mustang, and GE, which plans to print fuel nozzles for jet aircraft [source: Heller].
But that's just the tip of the incredible range of items that 3-D printers can create. From pharmaceuticals to prosthetic body parts to food, let's examine 10 ways 3-D printing technology could change the world in the years to come.
In 2013, Victoria's Secret model Lindsay Ellingson wowed fashionistas and techies alike by strutting down the runway in a one-of-a-kind glittery snowflake ensemble, accessorized with a set of wings, a corset and a headpiece fashioned from nylon via a 3-D printing process [source: Heller].
But that attention-getting stunt only gave a hint of how 3-D printing may transform the clothing industry. In the near future, according to Dutch fashion designer Iris van Herpen, clothiers are likely to use 3-D scans of consumers' bodies to create custom-designed garments and accessories that not only fit them perfectly, but even adjust to their bodies' individualized movements [source: Dezeen.com].
"With 3-D printing you can decide how much flexibility you want in millimeters or centimeters on a specific part, for example the knees or the shoulders, and you can just include that on the file," van Herpen said in a 2013 interview.
Low-cost Prosthetic Limbs
In 2012, Daniel Omar, a 14-year-old Sudanese boy, was injured when government forces dropped a bomb during an attack on rebels. An American surgeon was able to save Omar's life, but he was left without hands. That is, until Mick Ebeling, chief executive of a research firm called Not Impossible Labs, read a magazine article about the plight of Omar and other Sudanese amputees.
Ebeling set up a lab at a Sudanese hospital and equipped it with 3-D printers, which churned out prosthetic limbs at a cost of just $100 apiece, a fraction of the thousands of dollars that conventionally manufactured ones go for [sources: McCracken, Turner]. Researchers at design firm Autodesk and the University of Toronto are working to develop software that eventually will allow them to scan amputees' bodies and design and print customized limbs that fit their bodies more precisely [source: Woollaston].
Replacement Parts for Almost Anything
Probably everyone has experienced the frustration of having to junk an old, long-dependable appliance that would work just fine, if only you could find replacement parts.
But that's likely to change, thanks to 3-D printing, which may enable you to simply download the plans for a replacement part and print it on your own printer. Already, 3-D printing site Thingiverse offers designs for printing close to 2,500 replacement parts for everything from manual car window cranks and dishwasher rollers to wristwatch parts and pinball flippers. It's not that much of a stretch to envision a future in which your trusty old gadgets could last as long as those 1950s automobiles in Havana that are kept running by mechanics' ingenuity.
With a little tinkering, a 3-D printer can be rigged to spray pharmaceutical ingredients instead of plastic or metal layers and generate chemical reactions, which could open the way to custom-printing medicines. In 2012, University of Glasgow researchers used a 3-D printer to create a range of compounds, including some used in cancer treatments [source: BBC].
"In the future, you could buy common chemicals, slot them into something that 3-D prints, just press a button to mix the ingredients and filter them through the architecture and at the bottom you would get out your prescription drug," researcher Mark Symes explained at the time.
DIY pharmaceuticals someday might reduce the cost of health care, but the technology also could have some risks, because people may choose to forego medical supervision. Worse yet, law enforcement agencies will have a tough time preventing drug abusers from downloading designs and printing the substances of their choice — a future foretold by a recent Vice article, entitled, "In the Future, Your Drug Dealer Will Be a Printer" [source: Holmes].
At the 2014 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, a company called 3D Systems exhibited a pair of 3-D printer systems that were customized to make candy from ingredients such as chocolate, sugar infused with vanilla, mint, sour apple, and cherry and watermelon flavorings. The confections were created by spreading a thin layer of flavored sugar and painting water on top of it using a jet print head. This generated a substance of hardened crystals. Not only was the finished product edible, but the makers could actually create candies in unusual geometric shapes, and even fashion sweets with moving parts [source: Kelion].
And that's not the only food on the 3-D radar. A company called Natural Machines recently unveiled a 3-D printing device called the Foodini, which can print ravioli pasta. Yet another company, Dovetailed, came up with a method of reshaping fruit puree into custom-molded simulated fruits [source: Milkert].
Your Own Home
It's not inconceivable that in the future, you'll be able to create or download a design for your dream home and then send it to a construction company who'll print it for you on your lot. A Chinese construction company reportedly is building houses by using a giant 3-D printer to spray layers of cement and recycled construction waste to form walls and the rest of the structure. The finished homes don't look that fancy, but they can be produced for less than $5,000, and the company claims that it can produce up to 10 homes in one day [source: Guardian].
Another company in Slovenia reportedly is planning to market three different types of 3-D house printers in 2014. The prices will start at 12,000 euros ($16,300) [source: Krassenstein].
For years, researchers have been trying to figure out how to grow duplicates of human organs in laboratories so that they can transplant them into people who need them. But while they've had success growing tissue, the cell structures and vascular systems of full-scale organs such as kidneys and livers are really, really difficult to reproduce. Or at least, they have been up to now.
Medical researchers are making strides with bioprinting, in which they harvest human cells from biopsies or stem cells, multiply them in a petri dish, and use that to create a sort of biological ink that printers can spray. (The 3-D printer is programmed to sort the different cells types and other materials into a 3-D shape.)
Scientists are hoping that bioprinting someday will enable them to arrange cells so precisely that they can mimic the function of human organs, making them useful for testing new drugs or even as organ transplants. If the organs could be fashioned from a patient's own tissue or stem cells, they'd be less likely to be rejected by his or her immune system [source: Griggs].
3-D-printed auto parts have been around for a while, but inventor Jim Kor and a team of fellow engineers has gone a step further and printed an entire car. Wired reported in 2013 that the three-wheel, two-passenger Urbee 2 vehicle, which is mostly made of plastic, was created at a 3-D facility. The car is not roadworthy yet since a hybrid engine (made of metal) still has be designed, not to mention safety tests must be performed.
The vehicle took about 2,500 hours to fabricate, which means it's unlikely to be showing up in your local car dealer's showroom for a while. But it could be an omen of a future in which automakers can tinker minutely with designs and use 3-D printing to make fuel-efficient cars that are as strong and resilient as steel, but much lighter and optimally aerodynamic.
In 2015, assuming funding comes through, two of the Urbee 2 inventors plan to drive the car from New York to San Francisco in two days on 10 gallons (38 liters) of gas [source: Korelogic].
Replicas of Famous Artworks
Southern California artist Cosmo Wenman has used a 3-D printer to make meticulously rendered copies of famous sculptures, based upon plans fashioned from hundreds of photographs that he snaps from every angle. One example: He's reproduced "Head of a Horse of Selene," a classical Greek sculpture that once resided in the Parthenon and now is in the British Museum, by printing dozens of pieces of plastic, gluing them together and painting them to simulate the marble original. Wenman has confined his efforts to reproducing works from antiquity, so that he won't be restricted by copyrights.
Eventually, 3-D reproductions could enable museums such as the Smithsonian Institution, which only exhibits about 2 percent of its 14 million-piece collection at any given time, to digitize artwork and make copies available to people all over the world who might otherwise never see them [source: Carone].
In 2013, an activist in Texas with anarchist philosophical views made headlines by creating a 3-D-printed handgun called the Liberator and successfully firing it at a private range. The maker was careful to include a metal part to comply with a federal ban on plastic handguns that might slip through airport security. Nevertheless, the Liberator seemed intended to demonstrate the ultimate futility of government-imposed gun control, in a future in which it would be easy to distribute blueprints for DIY weapons via the Internet [source: Silverman].
Indeed, just a year later, authorities in Japan—a country with restrictive gun control laws—arrested a 27-year-old man for allegedly possessing five plastic handguns, created from plans he had downloaded off the Internet [source: Kravets]. Wired reported in 2014 that DIY gun makers had learned to use 3-D printing to create "powerful, military-grade firearms, and that it would be "only a matter of time until fully-printed guns are equally durable and deadly" as those made in conventional factories.
HowStuffWorks checks out technology firm ICON and nonprofit New Story, who have developed a low-cost 3-D-printed house.
Author's Note: 10 Ways 3-D Printing Could Change the World
I think 3-D printers will revolutionize our society, in part by decentralizing manufacturing and speeding innovation. Already, in communities across the country, it's possible to join a "maker space," AKA "hacker space" or "hacklab," a sort of co-working space in which people who want to make their own products can share 3-D printers and other industrial-grade equipment.
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