3D printing might seem like far-out, futuristic technology, but over the past few years it has become more and more standardized. That doesn’t mean we’ll all have a 3D printer in our house by 2016, but it does mean that we’ve seen a glimpse of what’s to come...and it’s going to be awesome. World-changing.
How Does 3D Printing Work?
3D printing works a lot like the printer you have at your home: you take a digital file, send it to the printer, and are left with a finished project. The only difference is that 3D-printed objects are much more than colors on a page: they are plastic models, food, homes, ceramics, cells, glass—just about anything you can imagine.
3D design files come in a variety of file formats (STL, DAE, OBJ, etc.) and are created using different types of 3D modeling software, such as Autodesk Maya and Mudbox. While there are a few ways 3D printers actually create objects (depending on the material you’re using), most items are created through an additive process, which is fancy way to say that the printer will slice your object into a bunch of layers stacked upon one another.
3D printers come in all shapes and sizes, from small 3D printing pens to massive, industrial-size printers. Check out this timelapse video to see a Dremel 3D printer in action:
(Side note: There are endless products and processes that could be revolutionized by 3D printing, which is why we were thrilled to feature 3D printing camps and modeling courses to our lineup of 2018 courses. This relatively new technology just might revolutionize the world. And, our campers will be the ones wielding that technology, building a brighter future and landing the nearly 1 million STEM jobs that will go unfilled by 2020.)
Don’t yet believe the hype?
Well, just check out these 17 ways 3D printing could change our world for the better.
How 3D Printing Will Change the World
- Aid World Hunger
- Custom, Affordable Prosthetics
- An Industrial Revolution
- Human Organs, On-Demand
- Complete Customization
- Homes for the Homeless
- Fun, New Foods
- Safer Space Travel
- Less Waste
- More Power to the People
- Home-Grown Products
- Cooler Art
- Eco-Friendly Alternatives
- Small Business Empowerment
- More Affordable Healthcare
- Lower Prices All-Around
- Out-of-the-Box Thinking
1. Aid World Hunger
3D-printed food may seem weird, and even unappetizing, but it might help us solve world hunger. Using cartridges of powder and oil with a shelf life of nearly 30 years, a NASA-funded company is creating a 3D food printer that would create custom, fully nutritious meals. 3D-printed meat, which is created from synthesised protein strings, should even become viable within the next 10 years.
Of course, it will take decades before 3D printing technology is inexpensive enough to begin feeding people in poor, remote locations, but the future is bright.
2. Custom, Affordable Prosthetics
Prosthetics are life-changing. But they can also be costly and time-consuming to create—and insurance companies often think it’s not worth the cost.
Thankfully, with new 3D printing technology, companies like e-NABLE are able to create inexpensive prosthetics from all over the world. Here’s how it works: Two strangers collaborated to create a prosthetic hand device for a child in South Africa. Then they made the 3D model available to others, allowing a network of thinkers, dreamers, and techies from all over the world to participate. Whether the volunteers contribute by modifying the device file for a specific child or offer to print the 3D model on a home device, they come together to make a difference. e-NABLE has provided more than 1,500 kids with free working hands.
3. An Industrial Revolution
The Industrial Revolution got its start around 1760, as whole countries witnessed how new agriculture, textile, and metal manufacturing processes would change the way people lived, worked and purchased—forever. While it’s unlikely that that level of change would occur today, 3D printing will change the way manufacturing has traditionally been run.
Right now, various machines are created for a specific purpose. One machine might be needed to create a two-inch part, while an entirely different machine would be necessary for creating a three-inch part. With 3D printing, a single machine could be used to create endless parts and pieces—you would only need to tweak the software to go from creating a two-inch part to a three-inch part.
The ability to produce more customized pieces with less machinery will no doubt impact current manufacturing processes. We may see less outsourcing, as domestic companies regain the ability to competitively produce products. We’ll also see shorter wait times and reduced costs for custom parts. Smaller, more sustainable factories will arise.
4. Human Organs, On-Demand
3D bioprinting might just be the most radical use of 3D printing technologies—ever. Using cartridges of bioink, cellular material, 3D bioprinters have been able to print human cartilage tissue, artificial human organs like an outer ear prototype, polymer bones, tiny livers, and other tissues.
While the organs that are currently being printed are not yet capable of acting as transplants, they do have an equally important use: testing. 3D-printed organs allow scientists to research and find cures ever faster.
5. Complete Customization
We love being unique. And technology has made individuality more accessible in a number of ways: now you can mod Minecraft and design your own video games that nobody else has. We’ve come a long way in terms of customization, but we still have a ways to go. And 3D printing will help us get there.
Say you’re ordering shoes, but have one foot that’s slightly wider than the other. Instead of ordering two pairs of shoes, one in each size, you could note that the left shoe should be a quarter-inch wider—at no extra cost. With 3D printing, small tweaks and slight changes to existing designs don’t have to be impossible.
6. Provide Homes for the Homeless
Using a mixture of industrial waste and quick-drying cement, large-scale 3D printers have been able to create houses more quickly and efficiently than ever before. Each home is printed out in large pieces, which are then assembled at the construction site. Often steel reinforcements and other structural elements are installed on-site to ensure that the finished residence is stable and secure.
With this new technology now in our reach, people are dreaming up with ways that these structures can be printed—inexpensively—to help solve homelessness. If 10 homes were printed each day for a year, we’d have over 3,650 homes. And that means fewer people on the streets.
7. Fun, New Foods
So far, 3D printers have allowed for lots of fun-shaped foods to be printed, like the colorful 3D-printed sugar cubes (above) or this 3D-printed living food concept that actually grows after its been printed. From surprising new flavors to fun, never-before-seen shapes, the future of 3D printing will definitely surprise our palates!
8. Safer Space Travel
The Apollo 11 mission to the moon almost failed when a circuit breaker switch was bumped and broken off. Luckily, Buzz Aldrin was able to jerry-rig the breaker using a felt-tipped pen, ensuring that Armstrong and the rest of the crew weren’t stuck in space for eternity. But what if he hadn’t been able to use that pen as a switch? What if one broken part was the deciding factor between the world’s greatest space mission and utter failure?
With 3D printers on board spaceships, astronauts could design a broken part (or upload a file from Earth) and then print a custom solution in as little as hours. It’s no wonder NASA has funded a number of 3D printing projects!
9. Less Waste
Waste is inevitable. (Just think about the last time you filled up your plate at an all-you-can-eat buffet!) But with 3D printing, waste could be greatly reduced. Imagine if companies could print the exactly what they needed of a product without slowing production time, and if custom packaging could be created inexpensively, reducing the volume of leftover trash.
With 3D printing, businesses won’t need to overproduce. So they’ll waste less resources and save more money.
10. More Power to the People
3D printing was historically used by big businesses as a way to create prototypes or models that would allow you to see what an idea might look like in real life. As an example, an automobile company might print a small prototype of a new car design before taking the time (and investing the money) to make the full-size car a reality.
This same technology is a blessing for big thinkers who have an awesome idea but lack the funding to go to production. Say you come up with a new design for a bridge, but you’re not sure whether the physics will work out. Now you can print your 3D bridge design in hours, test it, and make changes to the next iteration without wasting time or materials.
In the same way that cloud software opened the door for regular people to innovate and create, 3D printing will do the same for actual materials. The result? We’ll solve big problems faster than ever before.
11. More American-Made Goods
There’s a certain level of pride that comes from knowing that a product was conceived, built, and distributed in the place you call home. However, many businesses have turned to outsourcing to reduce costs, taking jobs from locals and incurring costly shipping fees.
As part of the 3D printing industrial revolution, we will likely see a shift from outsourcing to at-home production, as more and more materials can be printed at a lower cost with less machinery.
New art mediums mean tons of awesome new art that pushes limits and delights. 3D printing has already allowed artists, designers, and other creatives a brand new channel for expressing themselves, and the results are awesome. We can’t wait to see what they’ll come up with in the future.
13. Eco-Friendly Alternatives
In addition to creating less waste overall, there are other ways that 3D printing is an eco-friendly, sustainable alternative to other process. Take, for instance, the work of D-Shape, a company that “prints” with sand and dust, effectively returning these materials back to their original compact stone state. (Yeah, my jaw dropped, too.)
14. Empower Small Business Owners
The exact percentage is always changing, but there’s no denying that a majority of small businesses fail. While many have great ideas, awesome products, and a dedicated fan base, it’s hard to keep up with larger businesses with seemingly endless resources.
Thanks to 3D printing, products that were once produced in massive manufacturing plants can now be produced on a smaller scale for a similar cost, allowing local businesses to keep up with mass-producing giants. Get ready to shop local!
15. More Affordable Healthcare
Staying healthy is expensive, and when things go wrong, healthcare becomes even more expensive. But some of the greatest potential of 3D printing will be in the health sector.
Say that your son breaks his arm. You could get a traditional cast, which is stinky, bulky, and makes showering, well, complicated. Or, you could spend less money to get a custom 3D-printed cast that’s lightweight, easy to clean, and way cooler looking. Oh, and since it’s based directly on the scan of your son’s arm, it’s comfortable and built to heal and support his specific injury.
From simple, preventative devices that make work easier to 3D bioprinted skin grafts (yes, you’re reading that correctly—human skin!), health advances are one of the coolest ways 3D printing will improve our world.
16. Lower Prices
We all love saving money, and one of the main themes we see in 3D printing is that many ordinary objects cost less when they’re printed. As 3D printing becomes more standardized, both businesses and consumers will benefit from reduced costs.
17. Out of the Box Thinking
3D printing is already challenging and surpassing the limits of standard manufacturing. 3D printers are creating once-impossible designs, like holes that change directions or square interior cavities. Materials are being used in entirely new ways, and the results are incredible. We don’t know exactly what 3D printing will make possible, but the more we see people dream up the unimaginable, the more excited we get.
Preparing Our Students for the Future
3D printing has the potential to change the world. But all this incredible, innovative technology is nothing without sharp, creative minds to think up the unimaginable. Those minds are your child's, your friend's...yours. Check out our 3D printing courses at iD Tech Camps, Alexa Café, and iD Game Design & Development Academy, and let your student get a taste of the future of technology. It’s going to be unlike anything we've seen before, and we’re excited that you’re along for the ride.
Main image courtesy of Jonathan Juursema.