Like something out of Star Trek (remember the “replicators?”), 3D printing is now a reality. And it may surprise some people to know that the technology has actually been in the works for more than three decades, and is only now close to being the next must-have gadget for business and homes. Just imagine having tangible goods delivered to your desktop and having the ability to instantly make them into solid objects. Science fiction no longer—now science fact.
So while it may seem the technology of 3D printing is still in its infancy, it’s moving forward by leaps and bounds. And tech industry insiders are looking to 2014 as a year of watershed changes in field. Future applications of 3D printing are nearly infinite, and theories abound on what comes next. Consider these:
- Rather than throwing away a broken item, which is such a hallmark of our disposable consumer culture, you may one day soon simply order a new part and “print” it in your home. Environmentalists are hailing this application alone as one that could seriously fix the worldwide problem of resource depletion.
- The U.S. Army is experimenting with a truck-mounted 3D printer capable of outputting spare tank parts and other vehicle components on the battlefield.
- NASA is already testing the technology on the International Space Station.
- It’s been posited that 3D printers may be used to make future buildings.
- 3D printing for Third World countries means many of the things we can take for granted will be more widely available globally.
- Replacement organs for the human body, including prosthetic limbs? That’s already being researched.
- It’s believed that by 2015, 3D printers for home use will be available for less than $300.
- Dozens of companies are in the process of developing new materials for use in the printers, including nanocomposites, blends of plastics and powered metals.
And perhaps most importantly, there’s a theory being bandied about which runs the gamut from science to philosophy: in an age of digital dematerialization, 3D printing could help keep human beings more grounded, more tied to the real world in a time when so much of our knowledge, information and perception is beamed to our computers and smartphones.