Imagination Harnessed: A Three-Dimensional Dream
Envision a template of an AR-15 on your computer screen. A software program divides this rifle into many cross-sections and measures the size and shape of each cross-section. This information is then transferred to a large electronic device that is reminiscent of a copy machine. Instead of printing out a 2D picture of a gun, however, the machine begins to dispense moldable metal into a single layer on a platform. The metal dries quickly, and the machine dispenses another layer right on top. After this process repeats many times, an AR-15 slowly takes shape. Once the item takes its full form, the machine stops, and a fully functional rifle is now ready for use. This scenario is a gun-lover’s fantasy or a gun-control enthusiast’s worst nightmare, yet 3D printing may soon make such a scenario a reality. Gun aficionados are already using 3D printers to create almost-complete plastic guns; all these guns need are just a few metal components to make them functional. 3D printing already provides the means to create a dizzying variety of objects of various material types, and the availability of these machines for the average consumer may be within reach in a few years. As 3D printing technology improves and becomes readily available, it stands to alter human behavior significantly by exciting the human imagination to push the limits of creation, altering how people consume products, providing better educational tools, improving the quality of life, and causing a host of ethical and legal issues in the process.
A simple glance around any room can inspire thoughts of 3D printing’s many applications. Only lack of imagination and ingenuity can limit the uses of the technology. This process works best with materials that can be melted and dried quickly. PLA plastics cool and set very quickly when coupled with a fan to achieve a variety of shapes, so they are key when exploring 3D printing. If the size of the printer was not a limitation, many everyday objects could be reasonably 3D printed and reproduced with plastic. A dining room table might be printed, or even the Barbie doll that Scruffy just tousled with and left unceremoniously on the ground. Clothing and accessories, such as sunglasses and shoes, could be printed. Knick-knacks for the office, such as rulers and paper clips might be printed, too.
However, 3D enthusiasts are not stopping with plastics. Glass, resins, and nylons can also be used in printing. Creative engineers with Choc Edge now offer a chocolate printing device for approximately $3500, so consumers can print their own chocolate creations, ready to eat. Clothing lines in the 3D print industry are already flourishing and are sure to be seen more prominently in future markets. Metals are definitely being explored, but they are difficult to incorporate with 3D printing due to their higher melting temperatures. Some even dream about the potential to 3D print live organs. Even NASA mentioned possible use for 3D printers on a mission to Mars. As an added benefit, 3D printers like RepRaps are made of several plastic components and can print plastic parts, so they can mostly self-replicate. In future years, even more materials and creative ideas might become incorporated into 3D printing.
Given the variety of applications, 3D printing stands to revolutionize human consumption. This technology will allow each consumer goods customization. Many software programs allow computer users to create 3D, printable templates. Consumers will soon have the freedom to customize a shoe to fit perfectly to their own feet, and the same will be applicable to clothing sizes. Those who have to pay premiums to obtain unusual clothing sizes will find this advancement particularly useful and far more inexpensive, once the technology saturates the market. In addition, 3D print customization will open the doors to more individuality in the fashion biz, allowing individuals to print out their own fashion designs without the hassles (or expense) of a professional seamstress. Internet purchases will become even more alluring because individuals can print an order out at home instead of going to the store or waiting for a shipment to be delivered. 3D printed goods could become the new “As Seen on TV” specials. Possibly, consumers might purchase with a lighter conscience because many of the materials used for 3D printing an object could be reused for reprinting in the future. This could prove a more environmentally sustainable method of consumption as the technology improves. As of the date of this article, Staples has 3D printers in stock for a four-digit price, but more affordable three-dimensional printers might become available in the near future.
As the prices improve, schools will be able to offer unique educational resources not available previously. Imagine an elementary history lesson. Instead of looking at 2D pictures of artifacts from ancient civilizations, the teacher could print different artifacts for the children to manipulate and control. Student interest increases even as history becomes tactile. Those who always wanted to touch one of the Chinese terra-cotta soldiers might find it finally possible to see and touch a replica someday. Art classes can take new shape with a 3D printer in the classroom. An art teacher could print famous paintings and allow students to see the brushstrokes of masters. 3D printers could reproduce dinosaur fossils to scale for eager students to reassemble. A 3D printer could be a child’s new and advanced construction playground, better than Legos and more useful. Teachers in some schools are already incorporating this remarkable educational resource into their curriculum.
In addition to providing extra options for consuming goods and educational resources, this technology might also improve the quality of human life. 3D printing is gaining notice in the medical field. Surgeons have already reproduced and customized expensive precision tools, and they could potentially use the technology to create accurate organ reproductions before operation, helping them perform more accurate and effective procedures. 3D printing is beginning to provide better options for prosthetics, as well. Necessary medical equipment may become increasingly affordable, and that, in turn, could make healthcare more affordable for citizens. If 3D printing biological organisms is approved, 3D printing food could be another avenue for improving human life. If scientists could find a way to harvest the base materials needed to create the “ink” for food-printing, terrible farming seasons could be an issue of the past. For small countries such as Japan where farming space limited, this technology could make food importation easier and fresher. General items not easily available in many countries may become more accessible to the general population. Accordingly, 3D printing could help the average person become a wealthier and healthier individual.
Though this technology will engender positive cultural transformations, it will also inspire a variety of legal and ethical battles. A man named Cody Wilson has already made waves in the news by 3D printing a barely functional gun, causing a ruckus in the current gun control debate. Lawmakers might struggle to prevent criminals from eventually designing their own gun templates and printing them. Some wonder whether the scanning technology will become so advanced that currency counterfeiting will skyrocket. While 3D printing holds the potential to nurture individuality, creativity, and science, the technology may contain the keys to harm others considerably. For example, imagine going to an art fair and seeing a unique piece of jewelry. One could buy and take it home, scan it, and print as many as one might like for sale the next day. Inventors may find protecting their intellectual creations from piracy difficult, in much the same manner as authors have difficulties protecting their written works from distribution over the Internet. If biological 3D printing becomes more realistically possible, religious and ethical concerns will surface even more strongly than they did with the cloning debates. These scenarios could pose some difficult challenges for governments around the world as governments struggle to maintain control of the technology.
3D printing will revolutionize how humans interact and react to their world, and though the technology will offer serious legal and ethical concerns, the possible gain, to improve the health and wealth of humans around the world, might be worth the effort needed to regulate the technology. These devices will provide consumers unparalleled product customization. Alongside whiteboards and computers, educators will find 3D print technology an immensely useful tool for sharing knowledge. Perhaps the most remarkable feature of 3D printers: they have the potential to harness human imagination. Each of us will have a powerful resource to express emotion through our creations, and human thought will become real, physical, solid, and endlessly recyclable.