To Infinity, And Beyond

http://www.thechiefly.com/culture/digital-notes/current-state-3d-printing/

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The promise of 3D printing has many of us convinced of a future capable of being manufactured at our fingertips, a future where anything we’ll ever need will be downloadable off the internet and instantly printable with the right materials. Craving that slice of pizza? No problem. Broke the screen of your new iPhone 22? Wait a few minutes for a new one. That brake pad you’ve been meaning to replace finally got you into that fender bender you were dreading? Print out another!

It’s quite remarkable to consider the many possibilities 3D printing can offer, and where those possibilities will take us, especially when materials like titanium and even stem cells have proven to be viable building blocks for printing.

Printing sturdy, light-weight bike frames and industrial grade automotive parts with titanium powder, low-cost prosthetic body parts, replacement bones, and even dessert are all well within the realm of plausibility now, so who knows where we’ll end up in another 10 years as it seems only the fragile boundaries of our own ingenuity are limiting progress.

3D printing can benefit everything from the single consumer or tinkerer, small businesses, and all the way to large, entrenched industry while changing the way each considers manufacturing.

For the consumer or tinkerer, the design of a pet project can be fully realized with a printer using quality plastics and other materials. Small businesses can cut costs and rapidly prototype new ideas without engaging in many monetary risks.

It gets much more interesting when you factor in larger industries such as medical, aerospace, or housing. For these industries, 3D printing has introduced an alternative way of thinking about the basic process of part replacements or construction; it allows the thought of new concepts once considered impossible to be revisited.

From an expensive American medical industry to the long waiting lists for crucial, life-saving organs, 3D printing will be the revolutionary technology that lowers prices and delivers what can’t often be provided.

Although printing out organs may seem extreme, advances made by companies like San Diego-based Organovo–with bio-printers used to create structures in which cells combine into an organ–are making it so that printing out functional organs will be the norm.

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Even if fully functioning organs are estimated to be another 10-15 years out, regenerative medicine is still taking advantage of what 3D printing can do, with knee cartilage, heart valves and bone implants all having been successfully printed, eventually leading to the day where a fully compatible, printed heart will be pumping in someone’s chest.

As important as printing organs will be, we’re still thinking on a smaller scale- for now.

What will really shift manufacturing and continue to catch people’s attention is thinking bigger. So big, in fact, that entire houses will soon be printable.

A team at the University of Southern California, headed by Professor Behrokh Khoshnevis, recently built a massive 3D printer capable of constructing a home entirely out of concrete. Using a system termed ‘Contour Crafting,’ it will print all of the components necessary for a home along rails; afterwards, laborers will add the finishing touches like windows and doors.

Systems like this can reduce home ownership costs as well as make it easier to create new housing in areas devastated by natural disasters, spurring new job creation and fundamentally changing the industry with the ability to use stronger, lower-cost materials.

Companies like Airbus are no strangers to the inspiration of using 3D printing on a large-scale, either. After working two years on a concept cabin, Airbus engineer Bastian Schaefer proposed the idea of using 3D printing to create the entire plane. The only problem is the cost of the printer and it’s size, which would be as big as an airplane hangar.

The idea wasn’t born in a vacuum, though: it comes complete with a roadmap of every piece of the plane, addressing everything from it’s complicated nature, the stringent aircraft regulations needed to be passed, and the combination of materials needed for the concept to come to fruition.

As of now, the industry is predicted to be valued somewhere around $6 billion dollars by 2018, but even then it will still be relatively small compared to other giants.

With problems ranging from the general usability of 3D printers in the home, to issues concerning liability (my printed exhaust destroyed my million dollar car!), intellectual property, and the inevitable march by larger companies to tie 3D printing up in legal tape to restrain its growth, there are still many growing pains for the industry to survive first. What the 3D printing industry needs now is time, time to grow into it’s own and shake things up as it has the potential to do.

Until then, I’m still waiting on a printed Old Fashioned.

Nicholas Echevarria
Born and raised in the state of Brooklyn. Unhealthy obsessions with seeing new things, pop culture, random technological breakthroughs, comics, films and whatever else happens to be on my mind that day. Check out my blog [lacqueredmusings.com], won't ya?
Nicholas Echevarria
Nicholas Echevarria
Nicholas Echevarria

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