3D printing, or additive manufacturing, may not be making headlines like it was in 2013, but rest assured, the technology’s only been spreading and advancing over the past four years. The implications of 3D printing design are vast, and the technology has the potential to revolutionize our society.
Here are a few of the ways that 3D printing will change the industry, the economy, and the culture in the years to come.
1. Production will Take a Turn Towards the Local
Since the 1980s, corporate outsourcing has been a significant force driving change in the manufacturing industry. Large corporations often reduce costs by setting up factories in multiple companies to manufacture each sub-component of their end product.
With 3D printing, a company could manufacture a whole car in one place. 3D printing only requires a few employees, so labor laws will be less of a game-changer than they are with traditional manufacturing and its large labor forces. As the technology improves, it’ll become cheaper and more accessible for companies to manufacture their product close to home.
This would mean significant economic restructuring for China and other countries whose economies depend on being able to provide a cheap labor pool for manufacturing. They’ll have to find new forms of economic value-production to maintain their GDP.
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2. The Medical World Will be Turned Upside-Down
From surgery to prosthetics to medications, 3D printing has the power to revolutionize the world of medicine.
3D printing is already being used for prosthetics. Research firm Not Impossible Labs is already using the technology to print prosthetics for amputees in war-torn regions at a total cost of under $100. 3D printing could make prosthetics cheaper for everyone, changing the lives of amputees worldwide. 3D printing is also being used for surgery, with replicas of hearts and organs being used to help surgeons prep.
Bioprinting, 3D printing that uses “ink” made of human cells and tissue, is making massive strides. Many tech and medical experts believe that 3D-printed internal organs will be in use for surgery by the year 2025. 3D printing has already been used to repair damaged bone and cartilage, with surgeons using the technology in 2014 to repair a man’s face after a road accident.
3D printed pills are already a reality, with Spiritam, a 3D printed anti-seizure medication, patented in 2015. 3D printed pills could be a cheap and practical way to make lifesaving drugs available worldwide.
3. 3D Printing will Spark a Creative Renaissance
As 3D printing becomes more and more common, it’ll become more accessible and easier for inventors and creatives to turn their ideas into realities. 3D printing already makes it far easier for inventors to produce prototypes. In the future, the manufacturing process could be carried out by 3D printing as well. In a few decades, we might see the store shelves packed with a variety of 3D printed products that today would be unimaginable.
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4. 3D Printing Could Help Solve the Housing Crisis
Housing prices are skyrocketing across the West. Far fewer young people can afford to buy homes than their parents, and many people have difficulty even affording rent. 3D printing could help address that. A Chinese company called Winsun offers 3D houses built entirely out of recycled materials, which cost less than $5000 to produce. Their process uses “ink” made from fiberglass, steel, cement, binder, and recycled rubble. They’ve already built housing in China, have recently expanded to Saudi Arabia, and plan on expanding to twenty other countries over the next few years. 3D printing allows home builders to save on transportation costs, building materials, and labor costs. The cities of the future may be built through 3D printing!
5. New Kinds of Crime Will Emerge
When 3D printers become a household item, digital piracy may spread from the media world to the general marketplace. Why buy an iPhone when you can buy some metal, plastic, and silicone “ink” for far less and print one yourself? This level of precision is well beyond the capability of the average 3D printer today, but that may no longer be the case in ten or twenty years. The digital pirates of the future may be sharing CAD files rather than media torrents.
3D printing will complicate gun registration. 3D-printed firearms are already a reality and will only improve in performance and practicality as time goes on. How will state governments regulate the sale and traffic of firearms when anybody with a modem and printer can make their own?
This could be a problem across the black market. If 3D printing medications become a reality, expect 3D printed illegal drugs to follow on their heels.
This may sound bleak, but luckily, there’s a major upside to 3D printing that could help offset the dangers…
6. 3D Printing Could Save the Environment
3D printing will make it easier to produce goods locally, which dramatically reduces fuel costs. Faster production of goods may help curb the use of fossil fuels, perhaps even preventing the worst excesses of climate change.
With 3D printing, we’ll be able to step up our recycling game. Plastics, metals, and paper will become the “ink” used by printers, a process that uses less energy than conventional recycling.
Additionally, by its very nature, 3D printing produces less waste than conventional manufacturing. 3D printing is known as additive manufacturing, where an object is created by adding layer after layer of material to a previously empty space. Traditional manufacturing is a subtractive process, where the manufacturer starts with a block of material and carves away at it to produce the product. The latter produces far more waste, which will be eliminated by switching to 3D printing.
Finally, 3D printing can help study the process of environmental degradation. Researchers at the University of Sydney have produced a 3D model of the Great Barrier Reefs to help model how these natural structures are being impacted by climate change. This could be used to support the reefs recover from bleaching and storms.
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