Thinking About 3D Printing Technology

Any Star Trek fan will tell you that the replicator technology shown in the show is treated as an ordinary occurrence that isn’t so ordinary today. In fact, a number of the ordinary objects, such as communicators, in the show have become reality and some of them are becoming so common that they’re ordinary to us too. Compare a smartphone to a communicator and you realize that the Star Trek creators didn’t actually go far enough—smartphones are actually a lot better than communicators. This makes me wonder if 3D printers might become the replicators of the future.

There has been a lot of news lately about three-dimensional (3D) printing technology. The idea behind the technology is simultaneously easy and complex. The simple part is that a printer adds layer upon layer of one or more substances to create some type of object. The object is described as part of a drawing. Of course, the drawing must indicate all sorts of things in addition to the overall appearance of the 3D object, including which substances to use and what color to make them as needed. Creating a precise description of everything needed to create a real world object can be a complex undertaking and some objects defy simple description.

As with any new technology, 3D printing has plenty of hype surrounding it (such as the printer being able to pay for itself in as little as a year). In fact, hype is a problem because it builds unrealistic expectations. Anything you read about 3D printing today is in an experimental stage for the most part. John Dvorak explores the problems with the hype in his post, “Enough With the 3D Printer Hype Already.” Yes, creating a gun using a 3D printer is doable, but result isn’t really usable today (tomorrow may be another story). However, I get the feeling that many detractors haven’t read quite as much as they should before making a judgement about 3D printing and the sorts of things it can do.

There are other uses for 3D printing that only large organizations can afford. For example, I read about the use of 3D printing technology to create artificial reefs in the August edition of National Geographic (in the Next section). The printer is the size of a house and produces an 1,100 pound result that really isn’t in the realm of something that most people would want to create. However, it’s a useful output of 3D printing technology that is in use today. In fact, there are many uses for 3D printing today, but it’s important to remember that this technology is in its infancy.

Although many of the uses for 3D printing that you read about are for common objects that we can produce less expensively and with greater precision using other technologies, it’s the uses that aren’t available today that intrigue me most. For example, you can use a 3D printer to create a tiny lithium battery. This battery is the size of a grain of sand. You might wonder where a battery like that might see use. Of course, use in spy gear comes to mind immediately, but a more productive use is in medical equipment where battery size is currently a problem.

In fact, for now at least, the main practical area of 3D printing may be for medical use. There was a recent story that talked about doctors printing an emergency airway tube to save a baby’s life. What most people don’t realize is that hospitals don’t typically carry standard airway tubes in the right size for infants because the number of sizes needed would be quite large. In this case, printing proved to be the only practical way to create an airway tube sized for this particular child.

Of course, not every medical use will save lives in such a dramatic fashion. Many uses will be more mundane. For example, a doctor could print a new ear or a new bone for you when needed. Some of the medical techniques use cells from a person’s own body, which makes the risk of rejection quite small. However, even these articles state that this particular use of 3D printing technology is still experimental. The point though is that the technology is being tried in these areas and the result is something that you can’t easily manufacture.

Creating objects using 3D printers is a reality. The cost of those printers is also decreasing in at least some cases. However, the technology is still quite new and you need to take what you read with a grain of salt. Eventually, you’ll likely see 3D printer technology used in a way that makes those replicators on the Enterprise pale by comparison. Let me know your thoughts about 3D printing technology at