Future Tech: How 3D Printing Will Change the World

3D printing is a hot topic right now, especially with reports of this incredible technology entering the consumer marketplace. The prices are dropping as more companies attempt consumer-grade machines. Is it time to start looking forward to a time when we all have a Star Trek-like replicator at home to produce everything we want, when we want it?

While the technology isn’t nearly as versatile or as user-friendly as the science fiction dream, the implications include the potential to provide the things we need in much greener, less-centralized, less resource-intensive way. But, as with any new technology, there are also potential negative effects to balance the scales. Over the long run, the human imagination will no doubt concoct new uses that appear grotesque to us now but may make sense as the technology becomes ubiquitous and famiiar.

In short: as with so many human inventions, the future of 3D printing includes the good, the bad and the grotesque.

The Good

3D printing actually refers to a range of different technologies for making a three-dimensional object from a digital file. First, the dimensions and details of the object must be drafted out in CAD (computer-aided design) software. The CAD file provides the directions by which the machine builds the object, laying down molecules layer by layer and line by line much like an inkjet printer. How the machine prints the object depends on the type of technology used by the manufacturer.

The first rapid prototyping machine using 3D printing technology went into commercial use in 1986. Since then, the machines have become ubiquitous in commercial manufacturing shops. At first, they enabled companies to more quickly produce plastic prototypes on site, but the real benefit has come from their expanded use as additive manufacturing machines—a product can be manufactured by adding resources rather than the conventional way of subtracting from a larger hunk of material by grinding, drilling, sanding, etc.

Thanks to the ability to build a product from the bottom up, 3D printers can print shapes that cannot be viably manufactured any other way. For example, Airbus is using 3D printers to make airplane parts lighter—allowing the plane to use less fuel—without sacrificing strength and safety. People with missing limbs can have custom prosthetics 3D printed to their personal shape, capability and style.

3D printing also means significantly less waste. Traditional forms of machining often leave up to 90 percent of a slab of metal on the machine shop floor, but additive manufacturing generates far less waste in the first place, and also makes it easier to reuse anything that’s left over. The machines are also the ultimate expression of “just-in-time” manufacturing: a company can manufacture a needed part instantly, right on the spot, rather than depend on the old system that required parts to be manufactured in mass quantities, stored in massive warehouses and shipped to far-flung locations.

To further lower the resource footprint on our products, some researchers are working on attaching recycling machines to allow manufacturers and hobbyists to reduce their ordering of raw injection materials which they have to order from somewhere else. When 3D printers are ready to saturate the home-use market, they may provide an almost fully self-contained system. When printed items break or need replacement, home users could simply recycle them into the machine, creating a cradle-to-cradle system—the Holy Grail for recycling advocates.

The primary costs are in the machine itself and in the consumables or injection materials. Which injection material your home machine uses depends on the company, the type of printer you have, and which material you want to make your item from. 3D printers are able to manufacture items from various plastics and metals as well as glass, wood, food and even living cells. Most of the cheaper machines are limited to plastic, but many will function with more than one type of plastic.

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