Soon we may be able to print just about anything from the comfort of our own homes.
Many materials are already being used for 3D printing including glass, plastic, metal and even edible food and human tissue. Imagine how easy life would be if you could wake up in the morning and just print breakfast and a new outfit for yourself.
The way this works is you first design whatever you want to print using special design software on a computer. Alternatively, you can scan something that already exists into the program. There are various techniques used for the next step, but they all involve you printing your creation, layer by layer, through an additive process.
The cheapest 3D printers on Amazon cost only £299. That’s half the price of a new iPhone. Don’t worry if you’re not a computer whizz though; there are companies dedicated to doing this sort of thing for you.
Let’s start off by talking about chocolate, because - let’s face it - you love it. The world’s first 3D chocolate printer, Choc Creator, allows you to create chocolate in any shape you want, both 2D and 3D, without you having to use expensive moulds. Although I’m not sure how I’d feel about eating a chocolate in the shape of my face, the company has an entire gallery dedicated to chocolate portraits on their website. Natural Machines is currently working on the Foodini, a 3D printer which will be able to produce a wide variety of both sweet and savoury dishes, as well as chocolate. Some examples of potential dishes include fish and chips, burgers and carrot cake. You will still have to put all the raw ingredients into the printer, but it’ll do all the hard work for you. NASA and a Texan company are also working on a printer that will allow astronauts to print food in space!
3D printers are so exciting that even Will.i.am created his own. It’s called the EKOCYCLE Cube and uses special filament cartridges which are made from 25% recycled materials. The printer is a part of the EKOCYCLE brand created by Will.i.am and The Coca-Cola Company which aims to get brands to partly produce their products with recycled materials. They have already teamed up with labels such as MCM and Adidas, and are about to release their products in Harrods. In the future a lot of our branded clothes may be made with fabric 3D printed from recycled materials, getting rid of the idea that sustainable products are boring and cheap-looking.
As cool as all of this sounds, perhaps the most interesting way of using 3D printing is in medicine. Lee Cronin, a chemistry professor from the University of Glasgow, is currently working on a 3D Chemputer. This is a 3D printer that can produce any drug using special inks. Cronin says that in the next 20 years everyone may be able to print their own prescriptions.
Scientists from the Faculty of Engineering at the University of Sheffield have also recently developed a device called the nerve guidance conduit (NGC). It guides nerve endings towards each other after damage so that they can repair themselves. This means recovery for people who would have normally been left with loss of feeling or even paralysis. as a result of trauma or illness. NCGs have existed for some time, but the Sheffield scientists were the first to produce them using 3D printing, making them a lot more specialised for specific injuries.
Finally, there has been a lot of hype in the media about the 3D printing of body parts. So many things have already been printed including bionic limbs, blood vessels, artificial ears and even tiny functioning replicas of human livers. Scientists from the Cardiovascular Innovation Institute in Louisville, Kentucky, think it will be possible to print human hearts in just 3 to 5 years. 3D printing organs would mean a lack of donors would no longer be a problem, and if your own stem cells were used, there would be no chance of rejection. Maybe one day we’ll be able to replace all of our body parts and live forever?
When Barack Obama said that “3D printing has the potential to revolutionise the way we make almost everything” he was almost certainly right.