Fans of Star Trek often talk about how wonderful it would be to have a replicator. The science-fiction device, found in crew quarters and mess halls aboard starships across the galaxy, could produce whatever the crew person asked for.
It was an amazing fantasy. But like many things that first appear as nothing more than flights of fancy, the replicator is becoming true.
3D printers are the 21st century equivalent of the replicator. Every day, scientists, artists and entrepreneurs are finding new ways to print tangible products - from tools and clothes to food and body parts.
In this article, we share some important 3D printing news to help you better understand this form of technology.
What Is 3D Printing?
While 3D printing in general might seem like a new process, the technique has been around since at least the 1980s. Back then, 3D printing was better known as rapid prototyping and was considered a big deal in manufacturing.
Dr. Hideo Kodama of Nagoya Municipal Industrial Research Institute is often cited as the first to develop a rapid prototyping machine.
Although the industry recognizes Dr. Kodama as the first to develop a layer-by-layer approach to create prototype machine and manufacturing parts using a photosensitive resin polymerized by UV light, he missed the deadline to patent the process.
The first patent went to Charles Hull, who filed papers describing a stereolithography process in 1986. This led him to create the 3D Systems Corporation and market what may be the first 3D printer, the SLA-1.
Soon other patents for 3D printing arrived, including one that used powder grains fused together by a laser. Another option that uses melted material extruded through a nozzle to layer material until an object is built has become one of the most popular 3D printing process. Together, all three technologies make up the bulk of 3D printing processes.
Throughout the 1990s, engineers and entrepreneurs continued to develop various techniques and applications for use. The process became particularly popular in manufacturing, where CAD tools for 3D printing could produce machine parts to ensure designs were programmed correctly before hitting the floor.
Around this same time, the healthcare industry became interested in how 3D printers might aid research. By 2000, researchers printed a working kidney. By the end of the decade, customized prosthetics were regularly created.
Today, there are dozens of uses for 3D printing. The future holds even more promise, as machines become more affordable and innovation becomes more prevalent. What will we see in the future?
10 Ways We Will Use 3D Printing in the Future
1. Printing ‘Living’ Body Parts
There may come a time when life-saving transplants and life-changing surgeries are made easy by 3D printed ‘living’ body parts. Already, working kidneys, bone, muscle and cartilage have all been replicated using 3D printing technology.
Rather than resins, powder or paper, the parts are made using cells, which are placed in a specific pattern and built to fit damaged bone, lost ears and noses, and even heart tissue.
One technique, the Integrated Tissue and Organ Printing System, uses biodegradable plastic to create a structural foundation. Then a water-based gel filled with cells is included within the structure and encouraged to grow.
In many cases, some of these amazing feats are already here. For example, an 83-year-old Belgian woman was the first person to receive a 3D printed jawbone.
Because 3D printing can be customized, doctors built the replacement bone to perfectly fit and mimic her missing tissue. Doctors and researchers even made a bionic ear using calf cells and hydrogels.
Doctors used built-in antennae to pick up and transmit sound to the patient. By all accounts, the bionic ear could hear sounds normal ears could not.
While these examples are incredible, researchers still have many challenges to overcome. Often, it is difficult to keep cells alive. If they are too thick, which usually means above 0.2 millimeters, they become oxygen starved and begin to die.
2. Printing Homes
The individual parts necessary to build a home can now be printed and used for construction, though one Chinese company claims to have printed an entire house rather than individual components ready for construction at a single time.
The company claims it did so using an enormous printer developed over many years that uses concrete as its printing material.
As printers become more advanced and the materials necessary to print items becomes less expensive, using 3D-printed parts to build homes quickly and inexpensively could help limit or eradicate homelessness and construct homes for refugees or disaster victims.
Homes are only one type of building that 3D printing technology real estate pioneers might create. Buildings, garages, warehouses and shelters could also be built.
More than that, there may come a point when the average civilian can print his own home by leasing an enormous printer, programming it with the desired home and setting to work.
3. Printing Dinner
Imagine a wedding cake topper with photo realistic 3D figurines of the bride and groom. 3D printing makes it possible. The secret is that 3D printers can build using a variety of different materials, including food.
Chefs can use chocolate, sugar and other ingredients to create food sculptures that might otherwise be impossible to build.
Remember the replicator from Star Trek? One innovator believes he can create a machine that will use powders to print edibles in what he calls a “universal food synthesizer.” The powders have a shelf life of more than 15 years.
His hope is to make the printer inexpensive enough to help provide a solution to world hunger.
4. Printing Latest Fashion
Heathcare, food, shelter and fashion. All of these are possible with a 3D printer. Several innovators are using the technology to design and print footwear, either for use in underprivileged countries or as high art.
Some fashion runways have already hosted footwear from designer Janina Alleyne, whose 3D printed high heels are inspired by marine invertebrates.
That’s not all, of course. Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology are using silk to print clothing and pavilion covers. One innovator even developed the first ready-to-wear 3D bra.
5. Printing Customized Products
One the most likely uses for 3D printing is customization. Trouble with your earbuds falling out? Take a picture of your ears and send along to a manufacturer who will make you perfectly fitting earbuds.
Need shoes that fit perfectly? A quick scan and you could have the best running shoes you have ever worn. As the technology becomes more prevalent, big box stores like Target and Wal-Mart might even get into the customization 3D printing game.
6. Printing Rocket Parts
The American space program is also getting in on the 3D printing game. As NASA makes plans to send astronauts to Mars, it is also planning to print - in part - the rocket that will take them there.
Rather than build spacecraft part in the traditional way, using welded seams and rivets, the program is using large, printed parts increase surface area and reduce the possibility of leakage.
More than that, printing parts is less expensive and thus reduces the cost to taxpayers.
7. Printing Leather
There are many people who find wearing leather to be abhorrent, but the material has always had many uses. Now, a startup company called Modern Meadow hopes it can create leather products without having to kill an animal to do so.
Similar to the way healthcare researchers are building human body parts, Modern Meadow plans to use animal cells to print leather.
The process is relatively straightforward. By taking a stem-cell sample from an animal, innovators can nurture the cells, helping them multiply and eventually using them as a printer material to create living tissue. Beyond leather, the manufacturers hope then can also create meat from this process.
8. Printing a Colony on the Moon
While NASA is using 3D printing to carry astronauts to Mars, one architecture firm is teaming up with the European Space Agency to determine if 3D printing a moon habitat is feasible.
The habitat would be built on the moon using an industrial printer that utilizes moon dust and soil to form a building material that is something somewhat similar to concrete.
9. Printing Robots
As 3D printing advances, maybe NASA and the European Space Agency will want to print robots. There are a number of companies printing robots and robot parts, including at least one 3D printed humanoid robot.
Innovators are also printing computers and computer parts. Purchase a motherboard, plug it in and you’re ready to go.
10. Printing as an Educational Tool
Educators are excited to use 3D printing technology in the classroom. Beyond allowing students to print pieces of art or prototype models, the printers can also create tools students can use in the classroom, including low-cost, high-quality scientific equipment.
Much of the software needed to print those parts is available online through open-source programs and companies offering their plans for free.
We are only at the beginning of the 3D printing revolution. Every year, there is something new that emerges in 3D printing news.
It might one day eliminate hunger and make it easy to find shelter and clothing. It won’t be long before you might find a 3D printer in every home, as common as the television or personal computer.