3D printing, also known as additive printing, is promising to revolutionize the way things are made. Does it also have a chance to eliminate wealth disparity?

3D printers have come a long way from the bulky prototypes of the 1980s. They are now used to print everything from car parts to food and even artificial limbs. Personal 3D printers are sold for the price of a desktop computer and may be on their way to being as widespread. 3D printing is ushering the future found in science fiction ever closer to science fact.

What is 3D Printing?

3D printing is the process of creating a three-dimensional object by adding substance rather than the traditional process of removing material. Traditional manufacturing started with a big block of material and subtracted until the object was finished. The additive nature of 3D printing makes extremely precise building possible, widening the available options.

The material used for 3D printing varies widely depending on the intended purpose. In general, plastic, ceramic, and metal alloys are the most used materials. Other materials used can be edible materials, organic material, and photopolymers. Edible materials are used for printing food, organic material is used for printing in medical applications, and photopolymers are used in light polymerized printing.

The History of 3D Printing

3D printing grew out of the additive manufacturing movement in the 1980s. Hideo Kodama and Chuck Hull both invented processes for light polymerized printing in the early 1980s. Chuck Hull co-founded 3D systems, still a leader in the 3D printing field. He also created the STL (Stereolithography) file format used by 3D printers.

Worldwide 3D Printing Industry Forecast

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In 1990, the most common form of 3D printing, known as fused deposition modeling, was invented by S. Scott Crump of Stratasys. MIT, Stanford, and other universities advanced 3D printing technology throughout the 1990s. As the technology got cheaper, the community got larger, and by the 2000s, open-source programming for 3D printers was available. Now, 3D printers can be purchased at the local computer store and plans for nearly anything can be downloaded off the internet.

How This Technology Works

The first step in any 3D printing project, after you’ve obtained a 3D printer, is modeling. Computer Aided Design (CAD) programs allow you to create virtual models of whatever you wish to print. 3D scanners can also be used to create a virtual model. Once you have a virtual model of what you wish to print, the CAD program will analyze it for any structural weaknesses.

If some part of the design is not structurally sound, the program will create temporary scaffolding to assist printing. Then the virtual model is sliced into many small layers. The 3D printer dispenses a thin layer of material in a pattern determined by the virtual model. The printer deposits many thin layers over time to build up the object.

The most popular process, and the one used by most personal printers, is called fused deposition modeling or fused filament fabrication. This is the printer melting a thin filament, usually plastic, and then extruding a small amount of material that immediately hardens to create layers. Other processes include light polymerized printing which has the printer extruding light sensitive material, and then using UV light to harden it after the printing is complete. 3D printing can also include selectively fused powders, often metal alloys.

3D Printing in Space

3D printers have left the bounds of the earth to go into space. The International Space Station received a 3D printer in 2014, and successfully printed the first 3D printed object in space. Now small necessary objects can just be printed instead of shuttled up, saving NASA lots of money. It opens up the possibility of helping further space exploration to the moon or Mars by giving NASA access to cheap portable manufacturing that works in space.

Space Station 3D Printer

The benefits of cheap manufacturing don’t just extend to space exploration. 3D printing is used down here on Earth for precision manufacturing. In fact, the Space Launch System, the rockets that are being created to take astronauts to Mars, use 3D printed rocket parts. General Electric uses 3D printers to print singular turbine parts that had previously consisted of multiple parts. Large, specialized 3D printers allow engineers to precisely design complex parts and then print them out quicker and more cheaply than traditional manufacturing.

Individually Customized Products

3D printing allows companies to individually customize their products without any extra cost. Without the need for mass production, companies can print products on demand and lower the need to deal with overstock. Companies, such as architecture firms or car companies, can quickly create detailed prototypes in order to see any design flaws before production starts. Quick prototype production is also useful in scientific research, with scientists able to create touchable 3D models of microscopic compounds.

Printing Prosthetics, Implants and Organs

The medical community has been quick to take advantage of 3D printing technology. 3D printers are used to make custom prosthetics for people with missing limbs. The nonprofit E-Nable provides free, custom 3D printed prosthetics for children who need them. People use 3D printing to create custom prosthetics for injured animals, as well. These prosthetics are cheap to produce, and are custom built to the patient when standard prosthetics may not fit as well, which is often the case with children.

Hip and knee implants can be 3D printed to custom fit the patient’s skeleton. Hearing aids and dental implants are products that can be 3D printed cheaply and improve the patient’s comfort with the available customization. In coming years, scientists hope to perfect organic printing, with uses living cells in a 3D printer, instead of plastic. This kind of printing could eventually print an organ on demand.

3D printers can also use food instead of plastic. Restaurants and chefs are already using 3D printers to make edible cake toppers and unique chocolate confections. Some nursing homes are using 3D food printers to make soft foods more appetizing to their patients. NASA funded a 3D printer that prints pizza. Printed food promises not to just make astronauts’ food more interesting, but could help feed the world’s hungry.

The Final Step - 3D Atomic Printing

The ultimate goal of 3D printing is printing at the atomic level, which will create anything, atom-by-atom, much like the replicator from Star Trek. Jennifer Hoffman, a physics professor from the University of British Columbia, heads up one of the research teams working on 3D atomic printing. Dr. Hoffman plans to use atomic printing to create quantum heterostructures that will “lead a technological revolution, with impact on electronics, communication, energy, and medicine.”

Once the technological challenges are met, the possibilities are endless.

Building objects from the atomic level will allow anyone to print anything they need with just a 3D printer, energy, and the basic building blocks of matter.

The Chance to Eliminate Wealth Disparity

Atomic level printing has the potential to end resource shortages around the world by giving everyone the ability to create what they need. The open source nature of 3D printing means that any good idea someone has is available to everyone, so that people everywhere have the tools they need to survive and thrive.

Venus Project - Resource Based Economy

With the basic building blocks of matter all around us, once the technology becomes widespread, people will create everything they need cheaply, and often for free. This access to free resources will help eliminate wealth disparity issues around the world. With the advancement of 3D printing, a global abundance of resources that everyone can access is in our future, and that’s a future we can all get behind.

The Building Blocks of the Future

3D printing is already revolutionizing how the world thinks about making things. As the technology gets cheaper and easier to use, 3D printers will pop up everywhere. Beyond just small engineering parts, we will be printing medical devices, food, and even human organs. Soon, you’ll be able to print nearly anything you can imagine. One layer at a time, even one atom at a time, 3D printers are helping to build our future.