If your friend were to tell you that one day in the near future you will be able to print a 3D replica of a human organ, you would probably tell your friend that they’ve been reading too much science fiction. And they’re crazy. The crazy thing is, your friend may be right. If rapidly evolving 3D printing technology continues its current growth trajectory, you will be able to “print” solid, three-dimensional objects of almost any shape and material. Also known as additive manufacturing, this process uses a digital model to build 3D objects by layering in cross-sectional pieces. It may sound like fodder for science fiction, but elaborate 3D printers already exist and have major investor backing.
3D printing first emerged in 1984, but has gained significant traction in the past few years as investors have seen the vast potential that this technology holds. Innovators have thought of complex new uses for 3D printers, especially in the medical field. With this technology, doctors would be able to reconstruct the exact dimensions of a patient’s organ using CT scans. These scans would then be the basis for the 3D organ that would be printed using the patient’s own cells. 3D printing could also potentially cure blindness with its ability to restore nerve cells in people suffering from degenerative eye diseases. This would effectively eliminate long waitlists for organ donors and save countless lives.
Not all applications of 3D printing would have such life-or-death consequences, however. Everyday objects could be constructed right in your own home with a domestic 3D printer. Say one of your kitchen appliances breaks and needs a replacement part. Rather than driving to the store or waiting for the new part to arrive in the mail, you could immediately print the part from a database of design images. This mass market appeal is what investors are banking on. When 3D printers can be sold at a price that would make mass market production a reality, it will literally change the face of consumerism.
What are some other uses for 3D printing? Many classic cars in movies are built using 3D printers that replicate custom parts no longer in circulation. Elaborate prosthetic limbs have already been constructed and are considerably less expensive than current artificial limbs. One of the major advantages of this technology is its dimensional accuracy, building objects with far more precision than traditional methods. Therefore, it could have major impacts on the aerospace and automotive industries which rely so heavily on precision. NASA has already built complex rocket components using this technology, and it could alter traditional auto manufacturing processes as well.
Welding will play a huge role in the coming years in the growth of 3D printing. Plastics and metals are key materials in this process, so 3D printers will include extensive welding technology to help construct objects. Ultrasonic welders will likely be featured, as their high-frequency vibrations and shallow depth of weld are ideal for thin materials. This contained, highly efficient welding equipment is a far cry from the spark-inducing welds of years past. However, welding technology has constantly evolved over the years to meet the shifting needs of manufacturing, and 3D printing simply appears to be the next major step in this direction.
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