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How is 3D printing changing the world?

25 October 2015

What if you could print your own house? Then whip up a quick pizza using the same technology? Well imagine no more – it’s already happening... 

If 2D printing defined the 20th century, then 3D printing will probably revolutionise the 21st. The term describes the layer-by-layer manufacture of any three-dimensional object, be it a plastic toy, a new case for your iPhone or even a cheese and tomato pizza. Yes, you read that right. A pizza.

And that’s not even as wild and wacky as 3D printing gets. Want to print a 3D model of yourself? Upload a photo and cubify.com can squirt out your likeness in the shape of a Ghostbusters figurine or a Star Trek action figure.

3D printers are now relatively cheap. While the first 3D printers cost as much as a small car, today’s desktop machines are much more affordable. The MakerBot Replicator costs about $5,000, and the new UP BOX is half that. And the Kickstarter-backed Peachy Printer promises 3D home manufacturing for only US$100.

At this rate it seems like it won’t be long before 3D printers are as common in our homes as inkjet printers are today, enabling you to design and create your own objects or use pre-built CAD models that you download from the internet.

Applications for medical science

The customisable aspect of 3D printing is perfect for medical applications. While print-on-demand organs are still the stuff of science fiction, American start-up Organovo predicts that bio-printed replacement livers will be a reality in four to six years. 3D printing technology might be able to help reconstruct bones and create artificial replacements, too.

This has already happened in the UK, where consultant orthopaedic surgeon Craig Gerrand 3D-printed a titanium pelvis for a cancer patient, based on a scan of the original bone. Then there’s Intel’s Project Daniel, which has 3D-printed prosthetic arms for war-damaged children in Sudan.

For the roof over your head

Last year, Chinese construction company WinSun printed ten concrete homes in 24 hours using a 3D printer measuring 10 metres x 6.6 metres. It followed up this engineering feat by 3D-printing the parts for a five-storey apartment building. With a dramatic saving in production costs and raw materials, this LEGO-style approach could be how our houses are built in the future.

For the fash pack

Your future clothing might even be 3D-printed, too. Last year, design studio Nervous System showed off an origami-inspired 3D-printed dress that sways like real fabric does. According to Nervous System, ‘the custom-fit dress is an intricately patterned structure of 2,279 unique triangular panels interconnected by 3,316 hinges, all 3D-printed as a single piece in nylon.’

Imagine 3D-printing your own shoes or insoles, too, custom-fitted to the shape of your feet. Various companies – including Nike, United Nude and SOLS – are already hard at work on this, which means in future you can say goodbye to foot pain and plasters on blistered heels.

For dinner

While 3D printers typically use coloured PLA (polylactic acid) or ABS (acrylonitrile butadiene styrene) plastic filament as a raw material, food printers such as Foodini use familiar ingredients squeezed into stainless-steel capsules. This means they can print a variety of yummy foodstuffs, from chocolate and crackers, to pizza and pasta. Just watch this video of a small pizza being squirted into existence – it’s not pretty, but apparently it tastes good.

Like the microwave before it, the food printer is being pitched as a labour-saving device. As the creators of Foodini point out: ‘How often have you made homemade ravioli? Rolling out the dough to a thin layer, adding the filling, adding the top layer of dough, and then cutting it to size takes time... Simply load the dough and filling into Foodini, and Foodini will print individual raviolis for you.’ Sign us up.

Machine creates machine

To add to the weirdness, 3D printers can even make other 3D printers. The RepRap 3D printer can make a kit of itself, allowing you to create replacement parts or build another device.

It’s no wonder that the 3D printer has been called ‘the sewing machine for the 21st century’. Fast forward fifty years and our children could be living in 3D-printed houses, wearing 3D-printed clothes and cooking 3D-printed pizzas that will put weight on their 3D-printed replacement bones.

3D printing might not directly affect your future, but your superannuation could. When was the last time you thought about yours?

Explore Suncorp’s Superannuation 

Dean Evans is a technology expert, business writer, author, gamer and the former editor of TechRadar.com. He lives in the UK and continues to experiment with his 3D printer. Apparently his cookies are sublime. Follow him on Twitter at @evansdp

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