In the space of a single generation, we’ve seen computers, the Internet and mobile phones go from expensive luxury items to slick mainstream devices that have completely changed the way we work and live. But what can we expect to see in the next generation? This month, we’ll be looking at four technologies that will change our world. First, 3D printing.
3D printers manufacture solid objects from a digital design. It’s like sculpting in reverse – instead of starting with a large block of raw material and removing what you don’t need until you’re left with the finished object, the printer builds up the object, one thin layer at a time. The idea’s not new – it was pioneered in the 1980s – but now it’s finally reached the stage where it’s good enough and cheap enough to become a commercial reality. Companies like Staples offer a 3D printing service, and you can even buy a basic 3D printer for under $300.
Basic 3D printers are designed to create simple plastic objects. That may not sound like much, but think of what you could do with that. Instead of going to the store to buy plastic cups, spoons or plates for a party, you just print them out at home. Light switches, replacement door handles for your car, ornaments, picture frames… All you do is download a pattern from the Internet and print out as many as you want. It won’t be long before we see enterprising businesses and designers selling 3D patterns, and a whole new industry will be born.
The implications are enormous. Instead of manufacturing vast quantities of household items in China, shipping them to the USA, and selling them in stores, every household will be able to manufacture what they need, when they need it, right in their living room or garage. That will affect the economy in ways we can’t even begin to imagine. Whole industries will be affected, just as they were when online sales began to impact in-store sales.
But simple plastic items are just the beginning. More sophisticated 3D printers can use a wide range of materials or print huge objects. These are just a few examples of ways we can expect to see 3D printing developing:
- Cars – German company Voxeljet used 3D printing to create the body work for three replica Aston Martins for the James Bond movie Skyfall. They’re also working with Ford and Daimler to create prototypes of their latest designs. Although making engines is still a way off, it won’t be long before your local auto shop will be able to print out replacement body parts on demand.
- Houses – last month, researchers at USC unveiled a giant 3D printer that can manufacture a 2,500 square foot concrete home in under 20 hours – including electrical work, plumbing, tiling and painting! They estimate that the process reduces the cost of materials by 30% and the cost of labor by 50%. That will have a huge impact on house prices and the construction industry.
- Space stations – if you can print a house here on Earth, why not build one on the Moon using moondust, or even floating in space? The European Space Agency is already working on it.
- Food – instead of breeding animals for food, it will soon possible to culture meat cells and print them out, ready for the dinner table. Other researchers are working with NASA to develop powdered food items that can be printed out into healthy meals. It may not be long before you can go to your meal maker, tell it what you want, and have it created on the spot – totally like Star Trek!
- Robots – a few months ago, a Colorado teenager created a fully functional robotic prosthetic arm for just $500 using 3D printing. Within a few years, they expect to be able to print complete, lifelike robots. A.I. isn’t so far off!
- Human body parts – the first 3D printed ear was demonstrated about a year ago. More recent ones, however, have reached a new level of sophistication – they actually give the user superhuman hearing! As we develop the ability to print other organs, we face the possibility of being able to modify our bodies in unimaginable ways as well as cure diseases and combat aging. Perhaps immortality is within our grasp…?
Whether you’re thinking about home 3D printing, or more complicated uses, there’s no doubt that this is a technology that will change the world. We’re not just talking about cheap mass produced goods – this is ushering in a whole new age of science fiction becoming reality.