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3-D printing: cool new tool or total game-changer?

"We can print buildings to any digital design our customers bring us," WinSun CEO Ma Yihe said. β€œIt's fast and cheap.”

By Brooks Hays
A doll house stove printed on a Cube 3D printer by 3D Systems is displayed at the 2014 International CES, a trade show of consumer electronics, in Las Vegas, Nevada on January 9, 2014. UPI/Molly Riley | <a href="/News_Photos/lp/0896cd996ea7c76227ea74f1a3b9be00/" target="_blank">License Photo</a>
A doll house stove printed on a Cube 3D printer by 3D Systems is displayed at the 2014 International CES, a trade show of consumer electronics, in Las Vegas, Nevada on January 9, 2014. UPI/Molly Riley | License Photo

WASHINGTON, May 19 (UPI) -- It wouldn't be an understatement to say the Internet has changed everything. But what's next?

Some -- economists, journalists, human scientists and others -- say our future lies 3-D printers, a technology that's been described as "the biggest upheaval in manufacturing since the industrial revolution."

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As the Internet matures, it will continue to define the 21st century, of course. Humans, after all, are living in the Age of Big Data -- an age in which massive amounts of information are collected and recorded, and giant, supremely sophisticated computers able to sort and study said data. Everything is smart: smart phones, smart cars, smart houses and more.

But more so than artificial intelligence and Google, some scientists think 3-D printers -- the new machines that take all this data and turn into tangible materials and usable products -- will be even more revolutionary.

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Three-dimensional printers can make a 3-D object, of almost any shape, using a digital model; although many basic 3-D printers use plastic, printers have been designed to build objects out a full range of materials, including metals, concrete, fabrics and more. Already, in China, 3-D printers have begun building houses. Earlier this year, WinSun, a private firm, used giant three-dimensional printers to build the walls of houses, spraying, layer-by-layer, a mixture of cement and construction waste. Using the printers, the walls of 10 single-story houses were built and erected in a single day. The reduction in labor and material costs make such houses exceptionally affordable, as $5,000 each. "We can print buildings to any digital design our customers bring us," WinSun CEO Ma Yihe said. "It's fast and cheap."

Early in the evolution of this game-changing technology, 3-D printers have demonstrated a knack for the grand and the minute. The technology can build not just the giant walls of houses, but also tiny computer chips. As usual, technology begets more technology.

Perhaps most impressive -- and promising -- is the technology's foray into healthcare. Three-dimensional printers have helped advance the fields of prosthetics, stem cells and dentistry, just to name a few.

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At the Intelligent Polymer Research Institute at Wollongong University in New South Wales, researchers are mixing seaweed extracts with human stem cells to build new living components for patients.

"We're looking at extracts from seaweed that can actually form the structural component of 3D printed parts that we're using in studies for nerve, muscle, bone and cartilage regeneration," the institute's director, Professor Gordon Wallace, explained. "We really are just scratching the surface at the moment."

In South Shreveport, Louisiana, dentists are using 3-D imaging and printing technology to print new porcelain teeth and dental implants.

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"South Shreveport Dental is making the process of crowns a lot easier for patients with revolutionary technology called the CEREC by Sirona," explained Dr. Andrew Simpson. "The CEREC is a 3D intra-oral camera that sends a live color video feed to a computer where data is saved and transformed into a virtual crown making a single visit crown possible for patients."

Patients can have a crown, veneer, or onlay made in a single visit to the dentist's office. Dr. Simpson at South Shreveport Dental noted, "Technology's progress is helping us to address the needs of patients faster and more accurately than ever before."

Some suggest the 3-D printer signals the end of shopping. Why go to the mall, when you can print whatever you want or need right in the comfort of your own home?

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The technology is currently too expensive for it proliferate into middle class homes, as the Internet has, but a time may come (not far from now) when 3-D printers aren't just the purview of tech companies and medical research -- but a way to avoid a trip to the store.

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