The Brave New World of 3D Printing

Author: Ricardo Tavares
Published: 2014-12-23

“All that is solid melts into air,” proclaimed Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in the 1848 Manifesto of the Communist Party, observing the disruptive impact of capitalism on the old European social and economic order.

Fast-forwarding to the 21st century, I thought about the relevance of the words to the impact of the Internet of Things, Cloud Computing, and 3D Printing. IoT is transforming behavior and phenomena in the physical world into data, via sensors and connectivity. A lot of this newly-created digital information is going into the cloud. Then 3D Printing has the ability to re-materialize data from the cloud back into the physical world.

“With the advent of 3D printing, the reality we are used to is undergoing a radical transformation: everything is migrating from the sphere of physical objects to the sphere of information and data,” writes mathematician Edward Frankel in his book, Love & Math—The Heart of Hidden Reality.
3D printing transforms data into physical objects. It will have a big impact on advancing customized manufacturing, health and medicine, and changing how we do things at home.

Prototype 3D printers were first produced more than 30 years ago. But it is only now we are beginning to see widespread use of 3D printing and 3D printers impinging on the public consciousness. Prices are a determinant of new technology mass adoption. The advent of a whole host of sub-$1,000 3D printers for the home and small businesses, plus the recent release of the first $100 printer, means they have now become an affordable item. For most people at home, basic 3D printers are still little more than creative toys, allowing digital designs of everything from Christmas ornaments to high-heeled shoes to be made into plastic reality.

Manufacturers of all sorts, scientific researchers, doctors, the military and even fashion designers are taking this new technology very seriously. 3D printing has come on in leaps and bounds in the past two to three years, with upmarket industrial printers being able to use new materials, including organic materials, chemicals and metals, rather than simply different types of plastic.

Since the middle of 2014 there have been several breakthrough announcements in different fields. US military scientists are working on a host of 3D printing projects from skin grafts through electronic parts to weapons. One of their landmark projects is a 3D printer which can provide soldiers on the front line with bespoke nourishing meals.

In the medical field sophisticated printed prosthetics are now ubiquitous, but the production of other body parts, including organs, has become practical. Replaceable body parts for all may become a reality in the not too distant future. Researchers are predicting printed organic tissues will replace laboratory animals for pharmaceutical testing. Dentist surgeries of the future may have in-house 3D printers to custom build teeth, bridges and crowns. A lot more is to come.

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