3D Printing is changing the world

Talk of 3D printing being the new “it” technology is everywhere. Last year, we even got Kanye West’s opinion on it, when he made a rare appearance on Keeping Up With the Kardashians, and was put off by the use of 3D printing in the textile industry. He compared it to the way the Internet changed the music industry, fearing people would start printing their own shoes at home. At this point, though, for most people it’s still at the “What the hell is it?” stage. In order to really understand what the hype is all about, let’s explore what the technology is and why this breakthrough matters.

This Isn’t the Printing You’re Used To
The process sounds like tech straight out of a futuristic sci-fi film: it turns a digital image of an object into an actual three-dimensional one, and the possibilities of what can be made are essentially endless. The best part is you don’t actually have to be an artist or engineer to create the image. A Computer-Aided Design (CAD) program, like 3D modeling, or a 3D scanner is used to make the virtual design, and then the software breaks the image down into horizontal layers. The 3D printer will read each of those slices and build the object one thin layer at a time using lasers, photopolymers (light), or a heating process over the course of hours or days. Objects can be printed in titanium, wax, nylon, resin, plastic, steel, silver and more, depending on the type of printer that’s being used.

The Hardware Is Inexpensive
A 3D printer might seem like technology only Google, Apple and Microsoft would have access to because of cost, but relatively-speaking, the price range of these printers makes is actually quite affordable. A high-tech, commercial-grade 3D printer with large-scale capabilities will certainly set you back about $30,000, but consumer-friendly models have entered the market for a few hundred dollars and are compact enough to take up as little space as a desktop printer. One recent Kickstarter project raised a whopping $650,000 for a simple $100 version. While these at-home versions are great for creating small works of art, models, and creative projects unfortunately you’re not quite yet able to build your very own Death Star. Somewhere, Luke Skywalker is breathing a sigh of relief. For now.

It’s Revolutionizing The Medical Industry
While the capabilities are verging on endless, the medical industry is really benefitting from the affordability of 3D printed products. In fact, the researchers at the Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center have developed a 3D printer that can print organs made of living cells. Movies have always made this process seem like a terrible idea for future humans (who are we to argue?); however, the technology could help resolve an incredibly inefficient and time-consuming organ transplant waiting-list process. So far, tiny bones, muscles and ears have successfully been printed and have survived for months after implantation into rodents. Don’t get that underground bunker ready quite yet though, we’re still years away from human testing, though.

It Could Change Manufacturing As We Know It
3D printing could make the manufacturing of goods easier, more efficient, and less expensive. For instance, companies wouldn’t need to place an order for parts they couldn’t produce on site and then wait for them to arrive; they could just build the whole item themselves in their own factories. Also, they could print only when they needed to. These printers create opportunities to offer up low-cost customizations to buyers, too, like creating a pair of shoes that is not only built with your style and aesthetic in mind, but also to the specifications of your feet. Much to Kanye West’s dismay, his fashion collaborator Adidas is already using the tech, and introduced its Futurecraft 3D sneaker prototype last October.

We are rapidly approaching a world in which 3D printing will not only be part of our everyday lives but one in which the technology is improving everything we do.