3D Printing – Fad or Practical Tool?

For a while, it seemed as if 3D printing would take the world by storm and that we’d all have 3D printers in our homes pumping out anything we needed. However, since my last article on the topic, 3D Printing Done Faster and Better, the number of articles about 3D technology have decreased noticeably. In fact, the trade press has been a lot quieter on the topic, which makes some people wonder whether 3D printing is actually a fad. The problem with much of the new technology that becomes available is that people initially think there are all sorts of uses for it, but then discover that those uses aren’t practical or that they’re too expensive, and they end up dropping the technology (rather than revise their vision).

You can still find some fanciful uses for 3D printers. For example, the Washington Post recently ran an article recently ran an article on how 3D printers can change the presentation of food. The idea is that you really can have the food presented in a manner that is both pleasing and unique. The idea is to make food in unusual shapes, sizes, and colors, so that it appeals to a larger group of people. However, the original vision was to combine ingredients to actually make the food—this application scales the idea down to a more practical level.

It also looks like 3D printing will see practical use for various higher end needs that aren’t quite professional, but are out of reach of the home owner. Think of printers like the da Vinci 1.0 Pro 3D as a middle ground for experimenters (see the ComputerWorld review). The price is out of reach for the general consumer, but definitely within the range for experimenters and early adapters. Again, the vision is scaled down, more practical, and infinitely more usable.

The military is also using 3D printers to perform practical tasks. Having been a sailor myself, I can tell you without reservation that I would have loved to have been able to print some of the items I needed. Waiting to get back to port before I could even order parts meant serious delays and downed equipment. Imagine having the ability to print a new drone or other needed items while out to sea, rather than waiting for a supply ship or in port visit.

Of course, the medical and other high end uses for 3D printing continue to evolve. For example, 3D printed hands are becoming ever more usable. Expect to see all sorts of new medical uses for 3D printing evolve because humans are notoriously difficult to fit. I envision a day when it becomes possible to print just about any body part needed in the right size, color, shape, and characteristics. New printing strategies may even make the use of organ replacement drugs a thing of the past.

The point is that 3D printing is expanding, growing better, becoming more practical, and still evolving. Yes, you might eventually have one in your own, but don’t expect it to happen anytime soon. Practical uses for 3D printing are becoming more common. Until 3D printing becomes a must have technology for industry, science, military, medical, and other industries, the price won’t come down enough for the home user. To answer my initial question, 3D printing is becoming more practical tool than an interesting new technology, which is why you hear a lot less about it today. Let me know your thoughts about 3D printing at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.


3D Printing Done Faster and Better

A technology becomes viable at the point you start hearing about it on a regular basis. When the buzz around a new technology becomes loud enough and you begin to see real products from it, you know that it at least has a chance of becoming something worthwhile and interesting. Unfortunately, many technologies achieve critical mass, but then die on the vine as a fad because they lack something else. People are willing to give a technology time to grow, but only for so long. At some point, they get bored and move on to the next promising technology unless the current technology manages to grab attention. The technology must do something that keeps the user coming back for more—it must make things faster, easier, less expensive, or have some other benefit that makes it a must have technology. 3D printing is beginning to achieve both critical mass and the must have functionality that will make it the technology to have in the near future.

It wasn’t long ago that a Chinese company actually printed the parts for a building and put it up. In fact, you can find a number of such buildings now, but the buildings are more for publicity than practicality for the moment. You won’t see buildings produced by 3D printing at any scale for some time—the technique will remain a specialty. A little more practical is the printing of larger consumer goods. For example, another story tells you about efforts to print items such as snowboards and motorcycles. However, read the details about these new printing feats and you find they don’t really make the technology a must have development. The motorcycle, for example, is underpowered, overpriced, and requires way too long to build. These examples all demonstrate that 3D printing is doable and they create the excitement needed to move forward, but if the technology were to stay at this level, 3D printing would eventually become just a fad.

Another story talks about how 3D printing could eventually print organs in place. A previous post, Using 3D Printing for Urgent Medical Needs, discusses some of the medical uses for 3D technology, but this use would kick things up several notches. The new technology takes advantage of the body’s natural abilities to help promote cell growth and it would be less invasive than today’s methods of organ replacement. Medical uses currently provide much of the “must have” emphasis for 3D printing, but again, if it remains in this realm, the technology will be too expensive to reach a critical mass of products that ensures it becomes something everyone must have.

Organizations are starting to take notice of 3D printing, which is a good sign. Apple may eventually create a 3D printer for general use. The patent trolls are also showing up, which believe it or not, is a positive sign. All these signs means that there is interest by organizations in 3D printing because there is a sense that they can make money by various means. Even so, the technology still isn’t of the “must have” caliber needed to continued existence.

It was with great interest today that I read about how 3D printing is changing. Not only is it becoming faster, but it’s also becoming more practical. Ford has become involved in using 3D printing to make car parts. The process is faster and it can actually shave time off the production process (a lot of it). It’s this story that is starting to convince me that 3D printing will stay around for the long haul and that we may finally see a radical new way of producing the items we need. The technology has a long way to go yet, but it’s starting to build that “must have” aura around it that will ensure it remains a viable technology. Let me know your thoughts about 3D printing at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.


Using 3D Printing for Urgent Medical Needs

The uses for 3D printing technology continue to amaze me. For example, it’s estimated that 2/3 of manufacturers now use some type of 3D printing technology. This technology has the potential for significantly changing how doctors practice medicine. More importantly, it has the potential for changing how emergency services are offered. I actually started this series of posts by looking at some potential uses for 3D printing in the Thinking About 3D Printing Technology post. In fact, this is my sixth post about 3D printing technology.

The interesting thing about 3D printing technology is that it can be used to create body parts that won’t suffer rejection because the parts are made from the recipient’s own DNA.The latest use of 3D printing technology is to create skin for burn victims and others that will completely match the person’s own skin. The interesting part is that the skin can contain hair follicles and sweat glands, just as the original skin did. This means that there is a potential for creating new skin that looks completely natural because it won’t actually be any different from the person’s original skin.

It won’t be long and people will be able to get a replica of nearly any body part printed for various uses. Of course, the first use that comes to mind is as a replacement part when an older body part because dysfunctional. However, the uses go well beyond simple part replacement. By creating replicas of existing body parts, a doctor can test for drug interactions and other potential problems before starting a patient on a course of treatment. Many of the issues that patients face today will go away simply because the treatment can be tested fully before it’s applied to the person in question.

What intrigues me most is how this technology will eventually affect emergency services. Imagine what would happen if a first responder was able to apply a bandage created from skin printed from a person’s DNA right in the field. The temporary skin has the potential for decreasing all sorts of problems that people experience today because bandages sometimes just can’t do the job fully. A recent Smithsonian article, Inside the Technology That Can Turn Your Smartphone into a Personal Doctor, put an even stronger emphasis on things for me. When you think about the potential for advanced diagnostic equipment in the field combined with the incredible potential of technologies such as 3D printing, you start to understand that things are going to change in a big way in the next ten years or so. You may not even recognize today’s paramedic any longer. A paramedic may carry a tricorder-type device, rely on a robotic helper coupled to a doctor at a hospital for advice, and perform life saving measures that we can’t even dream of today.

I sometimes look at how computers, computer hardware, and other kinds of technology are being combined today and I’m just amazed. Even though many people view 3D printing as a fad that won’t last very long, I’m beginning to think that it will eventually become an essential part of daily living. Just as PCs were once viewed as toys (useless toys at that), some of the technologies that are in their infancy today will eventually prove themselves.

Where do you think 3D printing is heading? Let me know your thoughts on the matter at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com. What I’d like to hear about most is how you’d like to see this technology covered in upcoming books (or whether you have any interest in it at all).