Picture a world in which objects could be created with just a click of a button. New surfboard? Check. New sneakers? Check. New liver? Check [1,2,3]. This seemingly science fictional machine is slowly turning into a reality with the advent of the 3D printer. This device creates objects using additive manufacturing, essentially making 2D slices from a design and combining those pieces to create a finished 3D product . The most popular methods of fusing the slices are SLS (selective laser sintering), FDM (fused deposition modeling), and SLA (stereolithography). SLS uses a laser to fuse powdered material, which removes the need for premade structures in which to hold the 2D pieces, thus allowing for unlimited geometries . FDM printers, which are mainly used for rapid prototyping and manufacturing, build parts layer-by-layer by heating thermoplastic material to a semi-liquid state and extruding the material on computer-controlled paths . Stereolithography uses a computer-controlled laser to draw the shape of the desired object onto a surface of liquid plastic . The ability of all these methods to design and create intricate structures out of various materials opens a plethora of possibilities in the medical, manufacturing, and even educational fields. As such, five federal agencies have funded the 45 million dollar National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Institute, which focuses heavily on expanding and improving 3D printing .
Until recently, 3D printing had been primarily used for simple prototyping. However, businesses and hobbyists alike are already seeing substantial benefits over conventional manufacturing, since printed designs can go directly from computer to finished product in one step. This mechanism decreases the need for warehousing, because inventories can be stored as blueprints online that can be printed when needed. Furthermore, shipping costs are reduced for businesses and completely eliminated for products that can be printed by consumers at home. Finally, these products can be made anywhere. Take the case of a soldier running out of ammunition in Afghanistan. In the future, once 3D printing becomes portable, he could conceivably print out weaponry on the spot . In addition, 3D printers conserve resources as the creation of parts leaves behind no excess material. Not only is manufacturing cheaper and quicker, but it also allows for stronger, lighter, and more functional products due to the customization of structure and materials that is difficult to replicate with conventional means. Numerous companies, such as aerospace titan Boeing, are already taking advantage of these benefits. Boeing has 3D printed over 22,000 parts of currently used aircraft and its current flagship model, the Dreamliner, contains 30 different 3D printed parts . In addition, NASA is investigating the device’s capability to create lunar structures and bases directly on the moon, as flying bulky structures to the moon would be costly and inefficient . Currently, they are sponsoring the Contour Crafting project of Professor Behrokh Khoshnevis at University of Southern California, which utilizes massive 3D printers to create buildings. He is looking to revolutionize the housing industry by creating a giant 3D printer that can build a house in 24 hours . First, the blueprint is created on computer software such as CAD (Computer-Aided Design) or CAM (Computer-Aided Manufacturing) . Then, builders place two rails a little farther than the intended building’s width . A 3D printer then uses a crane with a hanging nozzle and a mechanical components-placing arm that travels along the rail . The nozzle shoots out concrete-like materials in layers to create hollow walls, which are then filled with more concrete. All construction workers would have to do is insert doors and windows . Not only are these buildings made at a fraction of the time and cost of current building methods, but their walls are over three times stronger than the average building’s .
In addition to enticing the entire manufacturing field, 3D printing is also attracting attention from laboratories for its potential in the bioprinting of human organs that could save and extend the lives of many. Due to the limitless material inputs including human cells and tissues, 3D printers are the most viable means to make the parts. An initial hurdle was to create the intricate structures of organs, but that was overcome by a group of scientists, who created a printer that works as seen below .
As the diagram shows, the final product is not made during printing; rather, the cells in the bio-ink, multi-cellular blocks, automatically rearrange themselves after printing through a recently discovered natural phenomenon. . Once this obstacle was overcome, numerous organs have since been printed, such as the kidney, liver, and skin. The current hurdle preventing these organs from being transplanted into human bodies is the inability to create the specific tiny blood vessels in these organs which are necessary to carry nutrient-rich blood into the structure. To overcome this barrier, Dr. Stuart Williams of the Cardiovascular Innovation Institute, believes that the previously mentioned phenomenon of self-organizing cells holds the key to creating tiny structures, as even the best 3D printers will have difficulty manipulating at such microscopic levels . Even so, the currently printed organs do respond to external chemicals the same way as human tissues do. This means that pharmaceutical companies can drastically speed up research, reduce the number of test animals, and save millions of dollars on drugs that work on animals but not on humans .
3D printing is also radically changing the field of education. This technology allows teachers to create models that not only facilitate the visualization of problems, but also reshape a student’s mindset from that of a consumer to that of an inventor. Leon McCarthy, a student attending the Marblehead Community Charter School in Massachusetts, is an example of the transformative aspect of this technology . He was born with a fingerless left hand and was unable to afford a prosthetic limb. At the age of 12, he and his teacher utilized the school’s Makerbot 3D printer to create a 3D printed hand that has allowed Leon to play sports and use his left hand like any other able child . Even 3D printer companies are seeing the important role that their product could play in this field. For instance, Makerbot, a key competitor in the 3D printing industry, has pledged to give each public school in Brooklyn a printer, and it hopes that one day every school will have one .
Although 3D printing has enormous potential, certain drawbacks need to be addressed before widespread adoption. One of its greatest advantages, open-source designs, is also one of its greatest flaws. A group of hobbyists have created designs for guns and uploaded them online for any person to access, download, and produce, thus bypassing government regulations on gun control . Although guns made in this way can currently fire only a few bullets before cracking, they still pose a large threat, as multiple guns can easily be created . Even more troubling is that these guns are made of plastic and thus are not detected by metal scanners. To counter this burgeoning threat, a Danish company called Create It Real has created software that blocks potential weapon designs from being viewed and used on 3D printers . Still, the company’s founder Jeremie Gray acknowledges that software in general can always be hacked, so a different long-term solution will probably be necessary resolve this issue .
3D printing clearly is revolutionizing various industries and has enormous potential for the future as the technology becomes cheaper and capable of printing larger and tinier structures. New organs will be created that can be transplanted into human bodies, and people will be able to view blueprints online and print them, instead shopping. These and so much more will one day become commonplace with the advent of the 3D printer. According to a McKinsey Global Institute study conducted this year, 3D printing will have a 100-300 billion dollar economic impact by 2025 and generate 4 trillion dollars worth of global sales . Ultimately, as President Obama has stated, 3D printing “has the potential to revolutionize the way we make almost everything” .
References Morton, Jamie. “Designer on board with 3D.” The New Zealand Herald. Last modified December 27, 2014.  Liszewski, Andrew. “A New Flexible Filament Lets You 3D-Print Custom Sneakers.” Gizmodo. Last modified March 11, 2014.  Hsu, Jeremy. “3D Printed Organs May Mean End To Waiting Lists, Deadly Shortages.” Huffington Post. Last Modified September 25, 2013.  Barnatt, Christopher, “3D Printing.” Explaining The Future. Last Modified November 20, 2013.  InnovationNewsDaily Staff. “New 3D Printing Center Aims to Boost US Manufacturing.” Tech News Daily. Last modified August 16, 2012.  Estes, Adam Clark. “Marching into the Future of 3D-Printed War.” Gizmodo. Last modified December 2, 2013.  Hsu, Jeremy. “Why 3-D Printing Matters for ‘Made in U.S.A.'” Scientific American. Last modified December 6, 2012.  Anderson, Thomas. “Building a Lunar Base with 3D Printing.” Solar System Exploration Research. Last modified February 1, 2013.  Hattersley, Mark. “The 3D printer that can build a house in 24 hours.” MSN Innovation. Last modified November 20, 2013.  Barnatt, Christopher, “3D Printing.” Explaining The Future. Last Modified November 20, 2013.  Coatney, Sue, Biren Ghandi, Beom Soo Park, Dmitry Dzilno, Emmanuel Munguia, Tapia, Gowri Kamarthy, and Ikhlaq Sidhu. 3D Bio-Printing. Technical report no. 2013.04.17. N.p.: e Coleman Fung Institute for Engineering Leadership, n.d.  Hustad, Karis. “3-D printing in schools: The next industrial revolution?” Christian Science Monitor. Last modified November 22, 2013.  Biggs, John. “Makerbot Wants To Put A 3D Printer In Every School.” TechCrunch. Last modified November 12, 2013.  Kantchev, Georgi. “Authorities Worry 3-D Printers May Undermine Europe’s Gun Laws.” Edited by Christina Hess. New York Times. Last modified October 17, 2013.  Manyika, James, Michael Chui, Jacques Bughuin, Richard Dobbs, Peter Bisson, and Alex Marrs. “Disruptive technologies: Advances that will transform life, business, and the global economy.” McKinsey & Company. Last modified May 2013.  Woolley, John, and Gerhard Peters. “Address Before a Joint Session of Congress on the State of the Union.” The American Presidency Project. Last modified February 12, 2013.
Image Credit: Creative Tools. Makerbot Industries – Replicator 2 – 3D-printer 10. Photograph. Flickr. October 12, 2012. Accessed April 6, 2014. https://flic.kr/p/dj1fT3.  Barnatt, Christopher, “3D Printing.” Explaining The Future. Last Modified November 20, 2013. Accessed January 2, 2014. http://www.explainingthefuture.com/3dprinting.html