Printing human organs in a 3D printer.

3D Printing in Plain English

Technology has always intimidated me, I’ll humbly admit. But with the help of a few competent friends, reluctant millennial daughters, and the geniuses at Amazon, Google and Apple, I’ve managed to appear relatively competent while enjoying myself immensely.

So now comes the dawning of even more revolutionary changes, including something called 3D printing. While I’m still wrestling with my HP, begging it to print on both sides of a page, there are now printers capable of stamping out automobile and airplane parts, residential buildings, consumer products, and most disconcerting of all, human body parts.

Engineer demonstrates the heart printed on a 3d printer

In the old days (yesterday?), we simply inserted paper into the appropriate tray and hit the print button, followed by a silent prayer. If all went well, the machine reproducedthe contents of the paper we’d placed on the glass thingy above. When the inevitable paper jam ensued, we’d slink out of the copy room leaving the mess for an office colleague to grumble about.

3D printing operates similarly except that rather than paper, it reproduces three-dimensional items. More than a printer, it’s a high-tech manufacturing machine for the masses, perhaps today’s version of the revolutionary printing press? In any case, the Industrial and Technological Ages have melded for the betterment of civilization. Let’s explore.

The Process

3D printing is a manufacturing process that creates three-dimensional objects by depositing materials layer-by-layer in accordance to the object’s digital model. The nascent technology allows for the instant production of complex objects from the comfort of our own homes. In their early renditions,modern desktop 3D printers are surprisingly compact, relatively inexpensive, and easy to install and operate.

There are three basic steps to using a 3D printer:

  • Similar to pdf files for a copying machine, 3D printers require digital design files of 3D that must be downloaded so the printer recognizes the required design of the item.
  • Similar to ink that is used in copying machines, the user chooses a material for the item to be copied and then loads the sufficient amount into the 3D printer.
  • With the final push of a button, the computer is now ready to send instructions to the 3D printer about how to deposit the material, layer-by-layer, to recreate a physical copy of the digital design.

The Mind-Numbing Possibilities

Although we are at the very beginning of this new technology, just imagine how it can be used. Forbes recently published an article illustrating some unique examples of 3D printing, including prosthetic limbs, homes and other buildings, edibles, firearms (uh-oh), musical instruments, auto parts, and replacement parts for just about anything you can imagine.

Here are three unique companies that are a step ahead of their competitors:

When it comes to consumer 3D printers that can be used at home, one of the industry leaders is Robo. They are heavily involved in the education marketplace, having developed machines and software customized for educating children in science,technology, engineering and math in grades K – 12.  Robo currently offers a variety of machines, software, material and accessories.

This may be hard to imagine, but an Austin, Texas-based construction company, ICON, is building 3D-printed homes! Their first house took less than two days to ‘print,’ at a production cost of about $10,000. Their objective is to reduce the timing to less than 24 hours, and the cost to roughly $4,000! Can you imagine the impact this could have around the world insofar as providing affordable housing to millions?

I leave you with Choc Edge, a leader of the 3D printing revolution that has developed a chocolate printer. Uh-huh, a chocolate printer! Instead of printing in plastic, this machine and related software enables users to print drawings and miniature objects in chocolate! What a scrumptious idea.

A No Limit Future

There appears to be no limit to the future of 3D printers. As the technology matures and a myriad of new uses are discovered, we can only imagine the possibilities.

Yes, there are social and moral issues to wrestle with. For example, could 3D technology accelerate the worrisome trend of replacing human workers with machines? Could weapons be mass produced and sold into a black market for nefarious purposes? How about the close brush with the idea of cloning a human being?

Could machines replace millions of jobs while possessing the capability of producing human beings? Are we entering a new age, a Robotic Age, where humans become less relevant, perhaps even superfluous? This is an actual fear of scientists and futurists who are studying the industry trends.

But take heart – with each technological advance over the many decades, haven’t we been equally worried yet worked out solutions time and again?

Beginning in the 1940s, the grand promise and profound risk of nuclear energy and the atom bomb has been reasonably managed. The worry that each home would need a bomb shelter faded away in the 60s.

In the 21st century, the ubiquitous nature of the internet and follow-on technologies such as 4G and smart phones has created untold opportunity and trillions in wealth. Yet it all comes with new risks, including the potential total loss of personal privacy and predatory, criminal behavior invading our homes from all corners of the planet. This one we’re just beginning to wrestle with.

While technological advance has never easy to manage, to find the right balance, we live in a time of boundless potential! Let’s get excited rather than worried. After all, for those of us who choose to embrace fear rather than opportunity, there are plenty of replacement parts being printed right now.