Three-dimensional (or 3-D) printing is arguably the most significant technological advancement of the 21st century. This unique concept is already revolutionizing the manufacturing process, which can result in a wide variety of products made quicker, cheaper, and much more efficiently.
Though at first glance it may seem baffling or counter-intuitive, 3-D printing is actually a very simple concept. Three-dimensional objects, produced from a multitude of potential materials, are laid down (or "printed") layer-by-layer until the entire object is complete. If you witness this process, you can see the printer depositing each layer in the same way that 2-D printers print line-by-line, resulting in one final, cohesive product.
While industrialized printers are quite pricey, personal 3-D printers can be purchased for just a few hundred dollars, making small-scale product manufacturing - which before required either a professional assembly line or incredible personal ingenuity - available to the average citizen. Currently, several companies already exist that allow you to contract out your print job. If you're an entrepreneur, inventor, or just a normal person looking to make a prototype, the future of manufacturing has already arrived; 3-D printing is by far the most efficient way to do it!
But how does the 3-D printer know what to print? All that is required is a virtual design, a sort of 3-D blueprint created via a 3-D computer modelling program. While this may seem inaccessible to the average person on the street, there are already freelance professionals who specialize in creating such models. You can also use a 3-D scanner to create a model of an existing object.
Applications for this technology are vast and implications for society are immense, as the printer can handle objects of almost any size and shape. Recent examples of 3-D printing achievements reveal everything from nano-scale objects to entire apartment complexes in China. Though for the latter some assembly and a 500-foot-long printer were required, construction waste was halved and production time was cut by a whopping 50 to 70%.
Aside from large-scale construction and manufacture of everyday products like phone cases, clothes, instruments, and decor, 3-D printing also has huge implications for the medical industry because it can facilitate mass customization. For example, consumers can now order shoes custom-fit to their feet. A Russian company has pioneered custom-printed casts and splints for broken bones, and several companies offering custom-printed orthotics exist. Researchers have even successfully printed skin, bone, cartilage, and other types of human tissue in what is known as 3-D bioprinting - a process which could prove invaluable for modern medicine.
Though many companies offering 3-D printed products are still start-ups, there are already an impressive variety of goods available. Nevertheless, 3-D printing is not without controversy, as it could soon be quite easy to print things like guns and knives, someone else's keys, or patented designs. Regardless, 3-D printing has the potential to completely eliminate the need for pre-production and storage of products. This means that the vast majority of things can be customizable and produced on-demand, greatly reducing manufacturing waste and inefficiency while revolutionizing the consumer economy. Here's to the future!
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