Ten years ago, most of us would not have even been able to imagine the existence of 3D printing, much less all of the practical applications of this amazing technology. Some of the exciting new ways in which 3D printing is revolutionizing the world we live in include new applications in medicine, industry, and even the way we use water.
This video demonstrates the potential of 3D printing for improving the lives of thousands by developing high-quality prosthetics for a fraction of the cost. One California company, Not Impossible Labs has taken this technology to war-torn Sudan to help alleviate the suffering of amputees. Training the locals in how to operate the machinery, they created and fit customized prostheses, helping those without resources to regain mobility. In addition to prostheses, researchers are also using 3D printing to develop potentially life-saving implants such as heart valves.
Surgeons have used 3D printing to create substances that replace human bone, and have even successfully reconstructed a severely damaged skull. The possibilities aren't limited to our physical bodies, though. Chemist Lee Cronin believes that one day it will be possible for people to purchase chemical blueprints and ink and print their own medications at home!
According to one article, two thirds of all top manufacturers use 3D printing in some of their processes. The majority of them are using its capabilities to create prototypes of new products because it is faster and less costly. However, 10% of manufacturers have found ways to successfully incorporate it into the actual production process. 3% reported that their products couldn't be made without 3D printing technology. Based on the current growth rate, the $2.5 billion in 2013 is expected to reach $15.2 billion by 2018.
Another article points out that 3D printers can use up to ten different materials simultaneously. The printer can scan the geometries of all the necessary components of a complex item and use that information to print other objects around them. Rather than shopping for the right size case to fit your expensive tablet, it's now possible to have a case printed directly onto it.
All modern water systems utilize valves, and researchers are working on using 3D technology to create new types of valves. Traditionally, precision valves that regulate the flow of not just water, but oil and other liquid substances, have been made through a careful process of first creating a pattern, or "cast" of wood or plastic. 3D printing allows unique valve designs to be created and cast more quickly and inexpensively. Surprisingly, it has also paved the way for the development of temperature sensitive smart valves.
A scientific paper outlines the details of a new ink that can print thermally actuating hydrogels to create a smart valve using a network of alginate and poly N-isopropyl acrylamide. Thermally actuating means that the ink interacts with the environment and responds differently to different temperatures. Experiments have shown that the gels increased in length by over 40% when exposed to heat and then cooled. Using this information, they developed a smart valve that reduces the flow of water by 99% through exposure to heat and increases it with exposure to cold.
Experts predict that 3D printing will make it possible to create fully functioning human organs within the next five years. This is wonderful news for the thousands of people on waiting lists for transplants and their loved ones. They also predict that 3D printers will one day become as popular as home computers, which could result in the same degree of rapid innovation as people transform their ideas into physical realities.
Since powerful new technology creates the potential for abuse of that power, experts also point out the necessity for regulation of the industry. For example, 3D printed firearms may one day be used to commit crimes. Other legal considerations include the effects of 3D printing on current copyright and intellectual property laws. The real challenge lies in achieving a balance between public safety and the rapid innovation that has produced inventions that, ten years ago, would have been considered miraculous. One thing is certain—3D printing will make the future more interesting.