What started out as something of a gimmicky novelty has turned to serious business in recent years. 3-D printing is poised to revolutionize just about everything. If that statement strikes you as a bit hyperbolic, then it’s likely you haven’t been paying attention to some of the latest advances in a discipline that has also come to be known as additive manufacturing.
3-D printing is being considered for practical use in virtually every conceivable industry, from medical to military to construction and even confectionery (as in food). Having the ability to place an order for a product and either print it out from the comfort of your home or drive across town to the nearest 3-D printer shop is one that will likely reshape the global shipping and transportation industry. You’ll still have to get on a plane if you want to travel from Los Angeles to New York City, but you won’t have to wait for UPS to deliver a special order kitchen table to your front door.
You also won’t have to wait six months for that brand new home of your dreams to be built, if some people have their say. Just two years ago in China, an enormous 3-D printer roughly 30 feet wide and 20 feet tall performed the seemingly miraculous feat of creating 10 houses in a single day using quick drying cement and other construction waste as “ink.” Later, the same company unveiled two block-sized buildings that were printed and assembled in a matter of days. More recently in Beijing, the company HuaShang Tengda 3-D printed a mansion in 45 days that they say is capable of withstanding an 8.0 earthquake.
Even the renewable energy sector is exploring the possibilities, with one Oakland-based architectural firm testing out 3-D printed ceramic bricks that would, in theory, be used in the building of homes. The prototype cool brick is created of clay and organic materials that could be used to cool homes without air conditioning — eliminating carbon emissions while saving residents money on electricity. 3-D printing has been called significantly more eco-friendly for its ability to use biodegradable thermoplastics that won’t take up space in landfills.
To some, many of the above-mentioned pursuits may come off as parlor tricks of epic proportion, but they’re really just child’s play compared to what science is already doing with 3-D printing. Prosthetic limbs and other external replacement body parts are being created in laboratories. An organization called e-NABLE came together with the University of Toronto to put 3-D printing to work for humanitarian purposes by printing prosthetic legs for Ugandan children.
But the potential for 3-D printers to bring about significant improvement in quality of life isn’t limited to prosthetics. For years now, scientists have been experimenting with the physical printing of human tissue.
The goal, it would appear, is to eventually recreate perfectly heathy organs for transplantation, and so far it seems to be a viable model. In North Carolina, the Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center has 3-D printed ears, bones, and muscle structure and successfully grafted them onto laboratory animals.
Printed human organs could also be used for a variety of lab scenarios including the testing of vaccines and other drugs. Not only would this present more accurate test results, but it would also give lab mice and other animals a welcome reprieve from potentially nasty fates in the service of the good of mankind.
Medical applications appear, for all intent and purpose, to be only one avenue of groundbreaking study in the science of 3-D printing. Looking ahead to advances that are likely to come about from continued investment include possibilities in the creation of meats and other foods. How this potentially unpalatable idea will be received by discerning consumers remains largely unknown, but early successes include Food Ink, a London-based restaurant where everything—food, tables, and utensils—are all prepared leveraging the magic of 3-D printing. It may not sound tasty, but when posed as a possible solution to famine, another plateau of possibilities comes into sight.
3-D printing may still be in its infancy with respect to affordability and practicality, but where forward-thinking minds are concerned, it’s a field that’s rife with potential. What will come in the next few years is restricted only by the limits of human imagination.