Imagine if after an earthquake you could airdrop machines that build houses in under a day. Imagine if you had cheap and accessible medical kits that could produce bespoke medicine on demand. Imagine if you could fabricate shoes, clothes, solar cells, lamps, toilets, pipes, water pumps, and just about anything else on site and at the touch of a button.
The scenario is still a fantasy, but could a process called 3D printing ever make it a reality?
3D printing, which has been around since the late 1980s and is also known as rapid prototyping or additive manufacturing, works by scanning or creating a 3D model on your computer then “printing” it successively one very thin layer at a time until a solid object is created.
Shoes, prosthetics, jewellery, clothing, machine parts and even human organs have been successfully fabricated using this technology. Source materials are varied and people are printing with plastics, rubber, glass, metal, sand and even living cells.
While the technique was prohibitively expensive and patented until recently, people can now build desktop 3D printers for under 1,000 pounds.
So far in the world of 3D printing, NASA is supporting a project that is looking at the possibility of 3D-printing spacecraft parts in space, according to media reports.
Meanwhile, in July the U.S. Army deployed to Afghanistan a 3D print lab, and the printing process has been used to fix technical problems there, according to a New Scientist report this October.
What else do experts hope 3D printing could do? Here are examples of developments and ideas in 3D printing, at opposite ends of the scale spectrum:
Let’s start with the large-scale: Engineering professor Behrokh Khoshnevis from the University of Southern California wants to print houses. Not only this, he wants to print them in a matter of hours, with walls three times stronger than an average building and integrate electrical and plumbing facilities.
So far it sounds like sci-fi, but the technology, called contour crafting, is already being developed.
But there’s even more to it. Buildings that use rectilinear walls are the weakest type of structure when it comes to withstanding earthquakes, but with this method of production structures that are curved and use organic shapes could be modelled and printed. The hope is for it to be done rapidly and with significantly lower cost and carbon emissions than traditional methods.
Then there is the small-scale printing: Professor Lee Cronin from Glasgow University is a man who can print molecules. He hopes one day people could print pharmaceuticals – a technique he hopes could one day be of benefit in developing countries, the guardian reported earlier this year.
UK charity Techfortrade is keen to use existing 3D printing technologies to help alleviate poverty in developing countries. The charity held its 3D for Development (3D4D) competition at the UK’s first 3D Printshow in London last month.
“We wanted to find a transformational idea that could leverage 3D printing technologies to deliver real social benefits in the developing world,” said William Hoyle, founder of Techfortrade.
Among entries from around the world, the winner was Washington Open Object Fabricators (WOOF). The student organisation at the University of Washington was awarded the prize money of $100,000 for its project working with U.S.-based non-governmental organisation Water for Humans (WFH) in Oaxaca Mexico, where it plans to help tackle water and sanitation issues using recycled plastic to print components for composting toilets and rainwater catchment systems on location.
In second place, Fripp Design and Research from the UK has already developed a system for manufacturing soft tissue prostheses such as noses and ears that could potentially reduce manufacturing costs from over 1,000 pounds to under 10 pounds for an item.
A wave of global interest, innovation and a culture of information-sharing are supporting 3D printing technology.
However, there are hurdles standing in the way of some ideas. Among those hurdles, what you can build is currently limited by the size of the machines themselves.
In addition, the printers currently cannot seamlessly mix source material, so you could print in plastic or rubber but not print something that contains both. Large, commercial machines are still expensive and the alternative DIY option relies on some technical knowledge and access to source materials and the right tools.
But could the technology ever make a significant impression on the humanitarian world?
“3D printing could make a huge difference to emergency responses, saving a fortune by printing things like tools, basic items and equipment on the ground from recycled materials, rather than flying them in from other countries,” said Steve Haines, mobilisation director for global campaigns at Save the Children International.
“The technology needs more work to make it reliable to use in these contexts, but the opportunities are endless.”
This article first appeared on the Reuters AlertNet TechnoTalk blog November 2012