The capabilities of 3D printers are accelerating rapidly. For several years, 3D printers have been used to make engineering prototypes of small objects. It’s become cheaper, faster, and often more precise than traditional methods.
But it’s gone way beyond that now. Soon your car, your plane, your house, your replacement knee and hip bones – may be 3D printed, custom fit items.
NASA is planning to bring a 3D printer to the International Space Station, to create some parts and tools on the spot, as the need arises.
Boeing is printing aircraft parts from sintered metal compounds – because the parts can be designed to be lighter and stronger than is possible with older ways of making them.
A 83-year-old woman in Europe just had a 3D-printed titanium jawbone fitted into her face. Doctors say the surgery was less risky, and took a third as much time to do, as a conventional reconstructive operation would have been.
3D printing has also made 10 million hearing aids “more comfortable”.
Some professors at USC have found a way to print a concrete wall structure – straight or curved – and reinforced. They call it Contour Crafting (nice video at the link). NASA has helped fund their research, exploring the idea of 3D printing landing pads, roads and buildings for a lunar base.
The PC and the desktop laser printer made custom business printing affordable for everybody. Working musicians now compose, record and produce their music on a laptop or an iPad. And the same is true with TV. CNN producers carry a laptop and a camera to field assignments, and send the edited video “tape” straight to the studio for broadcast. In all these fields, the technical quality of the end products has gone up. Meanwhile, the tools have become portable and personal, and the cost has fallen exponentially.
And now, computer-driven 3D printers are beginning a consumer-products manufacturing revolution here in the United States. For many items, both large or small, and simple or complex, it’s simply going to make more sense to custom print what we need right here at home, than it will be to mass-produce it and ship it from China. When we can get quicker order fulfillment, greater materials efficiency, less overall cost, and better product quality, why would we travel farther to get less?