3D printing is incredible. Take, for example, recent Northwestern mechanical engineering graduate and softball player Lauren Tyndall, who designed and printed her own more ergonomic and comfortable cast for her broken pinkie finger. Or consider the cost and energy use benefits of 3D printing of metal airplane parts in titanium, rather than machining them out of aluminum (a topic that my mechanical engineering colleague Eric Masanet is researching). Its potential as a core general-purpose technology is profound.
In a Project Syndicate essay, Esther Dyson puts some meat on the futuristic bones that I enthused about above:
The Internet changed the balance of power between individuals and institutions. It enabled millions of people to have jobs without having bosses. Instead, they have agents – such as TaskRabbit or Amazon Web Services or Uber – who match providers and customers.
I think we will see a similar story with 3D printing, as it grows from a novelty into something useful and disruptive – and sufficiently cheap and widespread to be used for (relatively) frivolous endeavors as well. We will print not just children’s playthings, but also human prostheses – bones and even lungs and livers – and ultimately much machinery, including new 3D printers.
Dyson lays out some areas where she sees these disruptive changes occurring, and some of the economic and environmental impacts of, say, the reduction in the demand for freight transportation and the increased ability to recycle and reuse physical resources locally. Her conclusion is optimistic on both economic and environmental counts:
In the short run, this means greater efficiency and more and speedier recycling, happening locally rather than centrally. In the long run, 3D printing will allow more efficient use of physical resources and faster diffusion of the best designs, boosting living standards around the world.