The Future of 3D Printing

Think it would be fun to create personalized action figures for your kids?The future of 3D printing, at home, labs, college

With the rise of 3D printers, that reality is here, according to Paul Klevann, chair of Globe University’s mechanical engineering program.

For the past decade, 3D printing has been a growing part of the engineering field, but today it’s becoming more mainstream, as people purchase simple devices for their homes. Users can download files for specific products, build their own designs or alter existing items.

From jewelry to artwork to vases, the capabilities of these 3D printers are only limited by the user’s imagination and skills with computer-aided design software.

Meanwhile, engineers are using of 3D printers in new and innovative ways:

  • A company in China built 10 one-story, 2,100-square-foot homes in a day, according to Mashable.
  • A firm in the United Kingdom allows customers to design and print sneakers, the Daily Mail reports.
  • The Washington Post has a story about the FingerReader, a prototype built using a 3D printer. It allows blind people to wear a ring-like device and have it read printed words as they scroll their finger across a page.

Shapeways, a 3D printing service, makes about 150,000 unique products each month, and that number is expected to soon double, Peter Weijmarshausen, co-founder and CEO, told Bloomberg.

“It’s quite a wide range of things that people make, and that’s the cool thing,” he said. “Sometimes we really don’t know what it is.”

3D Printing at Home

While some companies use massive 3D printers to develop new prototypes or test products, on a smaller scale, people can purchase 3D printers to use in their homes. Simple models can be purchased for about $1,000.

Using computer-aided design (CAD) software, people can essentially build whatever they want, layer by layer, at home or in their office.

Take Thingiverse, for example. The website, run by MakerBot, allows people to share designs they have created. Want a wine-bottle holder that looks like a tyrannosaurus rex skull? How about a ukulele? Maybe a Lego Darth Vader? These are just a few of the items people have uploaded.

By 2018, sales of consumer devices are expected to swell from 44,000 this year to more than 1 million, according to TechRadar. Some estimates put the market at about $10 billion within the next decade.

College Applications

Most college drafting and design programs have some sort of 3D printer, according to John Hartman, Globe University’s architectural drafting and design chair.

And about a month ago, the college upgraded its technology with a Fortus 250mc, a product from Eden Prairie-based Stratasys. It will be used in upper-level courses and give students the chance to learn on an industry-standard device, Hartman said.

All over the world, 3D printers are changing college classrooms. Going beyond engineering, an article from Leapfrog illustrates some of the unique ways they’re being used:

  • Historical items could be built and examined without fear of harming the original piece
  • Students in chemistry classes could build molecular structures to bolster learning
  • Plastic bones could be created for use in biology courses

Instructors at Globe University also envision the college’s 3D printer being used for other programs: the skull of a cat for use in a veterinary technology class or parts of the skeletal structure for a health sciences course, for example.

There’s even a story out of Illinois about a college student building a 3D printer using a 3D printer.

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What’s Next?

Clearly, the future of 3D printing is nearly limitless.

Scientists are exploring the potential to create body parts and organs. The Sydney Morning Herald has a story about a British defense company with plans for “self-healing fighter jets, transformers which split in midair, and instant drones.”

It’s an evolving technology, and the practical—and fun—applications of 3D printing will also continue to change as the devices become more widespread in homes, classrooms and laboratories.