Imagine having a machine in your home that could create anything you wanted at the touch of a button, in a matter of minutes. It may sound like something out of science fiction, but that’s exactly what our future could hold if 3D printers continue to improve. Look at how online shopping, for many people, has replaced the need to visit a shopping mall. Similarly, one day you may not have to pay for physical goods, but instead just download a digital design to your 3D printer.

It might be a new and exciting development in the home, but the manufacturing industry has been 3D printing since the 1980s. Like an old dot-matrix printer that prints a document line by line, a 3D printer builds a 3D object in layers, using heated, powdered plastics or metals. Instead of sending a word-processing file or a photo to a printer, you send a file containing a 3D rendering of an object, and the printer does the rest. The disadvantage is that the printers can only produce one-piece objects, so for anything complicated it’s necessary to separately produce the various parts and manually assemble them into one finished product. Although this can be a slow process, the individual objects can be highly customized, intricate, and unique.

The Impact of 3D Printing on Industries

Also called additive manufacturing, 3D printing has significant benefits affecting a variety of industries.

In the healthcare industry, 3D printers are being used to create prototypes for experimental products, and producing small, highly intricate parts for products like hearing aids, invisible dental braces, and orthopaedics.

While 3D printing a prototype might save time, when it comes to creating more complicated models it’s not an instant process. Highly specialized 3D-printing parts for jet engines, for example, take intense training, proper expertise, and a lot of time. In cases like that, the 3D printer is designed to help with one specific job, such as printing a rigid yet ultra-lightweight antenna for a satellite.

The same goes for architects, who can now take a 3D rendering of a house and print sections of it. This process is even being investigated by archaeologists to reproduce ancient artifacts and structures.

Chefs are also experimenting with 3D printers in the kitchen, replacing plastic filaments with sugar to design stunning desserts, and precisely pipe pureed food like mousse and mashed potatoes. The result elevates the food experience and creates intricate plates that are ideal for high-end dining.

Perhaps the most high-profile example of 3D printing is the help it could bring to future space explorations. There’s an experimental 3D printer up in orbit now because it’s thought that a mobile manufacturing facility could be crucial for astronauts working on the moon, on Mars, or on long journeys in space. For example, sending supplies and tools up to the International Space Station (ISS) using rockets is hugely expensive, so cargo missions are infrequent. Now with the help of 3D printing, if the astronauts need a simple tool or spare part, ground controllers can email the 3D-rendered file to the printer, and command it to print the object. However, because of the way 3D printers work, in the long term, astronauts would need to find another material they could print with.

Every creative and manufacturing industry is being affected by 3D printing, but the future of on-demand production at home is being adopted at a slower rate. Domestic 3D printers for homes, schools, and colleges are seen by educators as an opportunity to teach a new generation the fundamentals of creation and product design.

As people’s computer skills improve and the hardware advances, 3D printing could be crucial for the economy. Some think that 3D printers could help to evolve our consumer culture from one where we buy everything we need, to one where we create our own highly personalized products.

This “democratized production” – where huge factories are replaced by a 3D printer in every home – is the end game for 3D printing. And when anyone has the ability to create, fix and customize anything, the era of mass production will seriously decline.

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Jamie Carter

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Jamie Carter

Jamie Carter is a science writer specializing in emerging technology. His work has appeared in many international publications including TechRadar, Scientific American, Sky & Telescope, the South China Morning Post, The Telegraph and The Guardian. He tweets at @jamieacarter.

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