Elizabeth Royte’s visit to 3D Systems headquarters in Rock Hill, South Carolina prompted her to ponder a philosophical quandry: just because anyone’s idea can take shape doesn’t necessarily mean that it should.
What really is the value of endless quantities of 3D objects – from miniature vases, phone cases to neon coloured skulls ? Perhaps this question has been lurking around well before the advent of 3D printing. The manufacture of endless ‘stuff’ is nothing new. Just ask your friendly archaeologist at their favourite Roman dig.
So what is 3D printing good for?
The additive process of 3D printing enables a far less wasteful process over the subtractive process of assembly line production. You can produce a single custom part for a car dashboard, key holder or child’s tricycle. You can print personalised items (including a loved one’s name for example) or design and manufacture your own innovation from concept through to final construction.
Elaborate food design is now possible. 3D printed chocolate deserts and incredible icing sugar lacework enhances wedding decorations and personalises any occasion. Contemporary cuisine combines techniques impossible just a few short years ago.
The International Space Station has had a 3D printer on board since 2014. Invariably the demand for a specific part requires a solution that is better solved on the ISS rather than waiting for the next cargo shipment – often months away.
3D printing application is ideal for Prosthetic limb construction. Instead of paying as much as $70,000 for artificial replacement that is made from moulded plastics and metals – and quite often needs replacing if fitted for a growing child – one can be printed for as little as $200. What’s more, the appearance can be personalised and now embraces (what would seem unlikely definition) the fashionable.
Printing of human tissue for body parts is now possible and recently a printed human ear fitted with a hearing device was printed at Princeton University. it consists of printed human tissue and silicone. The application for these techniques is far reaching and includes constructing new skin for cancer patients.
Stories abound in current media of unimagined applications for 3D printing: Will they print advanced weaponry from home? And what about printing yourself a TV dinner? While it may seem fanciful, these stories are not too far from reality. We are witnessing a revolution in manufacture; already we can send a digital file to a company that will print your own design in ceramic, gold or steel. See www.shapeways.com and www.sculpteo.com.
Radical technological advances in manufacture such as these have not been seen since the industrial revolution and it is not unreasonable to expect even more in the near future.