Human Achievement of the Day: 3D Printing Cups, Cars, Houses, and Faces

3D printing is a relatively recent technological development that has already begun to revolutionize model-building, structural and other medical procedures, and construction of items from toys to houses.

Also called additive manufacturing (as contrasted with subtractive processes, that is, machining), 3D printing uses digital instructions produced through computer-aided design (CAD) software to create an item by “printing” it in layers using a variety of materials – powders, plastic, ceramics, etc. With ink-jet-type print heads, the materials are extruded layer by layer according to the design.

In its early applications, 3D printing was principally used for creating prototypes or models of larger objects. With 3D printing, those prototypes could be built with greater precision and speed and allow for quick modifications in the design. Rapid prototyping developed during the 1980s and early 1990s.

In the past decade, 3D printing applications have found fertile ground in the medical field. Almost daily, a medical breakthrough made possible through 3D printing is announced. Today, researchers announced that they had created heart muscle that beats when it is implanted in animals. Yesterday, news stories reported that 3D printing had saved a baby’s life by printing a splint that fit over his windpipe and kept it open so he could breathe.  Researchers are using 3D printing to produce scaffolding that they then grow tissue on to rebuild human skeletal parts that have been heavily damaged by injuries or diseases.

For example, structural 3D printing has been used to rebuild a young man’s facial structure after an accident shattered his face. A cancer sufferer had a new pelvis “printed” using that technology. Doctors are more often simulating difficult and lengthy operations by using 3D printed models of the organs or parts of the skeleton on which they will be operating. Using those models can drastically reduce the operating time involved and lead to safer and more efficient surgery – thus reducing the risk to the patients.

Some medical breakthroughs use bio-printing, a form of printing that uses cultured cells as the “ink” that gets applied to a growth medium such as hydrogel in layers. Once the cells mature, the hydrogel is removed and the tissue can then be used in research or medical applications. As this research advances, it is conceivable that bio-printing can produce muscles, blood vessels, organs.

While these medical achievements are almost beyond imagining, other applications of 3D printing could change whole production methods for the construction industry and other industries that may turn to this technology to build models and prototypes – and the final products – for houses, automobiles, furniture, toys, etc. Already there’s fierce competition for who can build the first 3D printed house and the first 3D printed car.

It’s not likely that 3D printing will soon replace production lines for mass production of products. Its more immediate use will probably be to produce after-market replacement parts quickly and inexpensively.

But it’s not just businesses that will be using this new technology. While the large-scale industrial 3D printers are out of the range of the average person, small printers are increasingly hitting the market at modest prices. Most of the lower price printers will probably have limited types of cartridges but will soon allow the user, for example, to replace a broken wing of a toy airplane or create a new line of jewelry. Consumers can produce their own one-of-a-kind designs of clothing and accessories or work on collaborative projects. Crowd-sourcing has already proved useful in solving complex problems. It’s likely that crowd-sourcing in 3D printing – with numerous individuals lending their expertise to particular projects – could lead to critical breakthroughs.

Human achievements such as 3D printing can lead to improvements in people’s health, well-being, and creativity. It’s critical that developments such as these are not fettered by fear of the future that leads to crippling regulation.

About Human Achievement Hour (HAH): Human Achievement Hour is about paying tribute to the human innovations that allow people around the globe to live better, fuller lives, while also defending the basic human right to use energy to improve the quality of life of all people. Human Achievement Hour is the counter argument to Earth Hour, and promotes looking to technology and innovation to help solve environmental problems instead of reverting to the “dark ages,” by symbolically refusing to use electricity for an hour.