Hod Lipson (Cornell) thinks that three-dimensional printers—those robotic machines that build solid objects layer by layer from powders, liquids, and pastes—are sitting on the verge of a parallel personal manufacturing revolution. “In 20 years, many people will have a 3-D printer in their kitchen for printing designer foods and other products,” says Lipson, who works with the technology. A surgeon could have one in the operating room for printing bone grafts or replacement blood vessels, and a chef might have one in the restaurant for printing gourmet meals with varying textures and tastes. “In 40 years, we’ll have a hard time explaining to our grandchildren how we lived without one.”
Although Lipson doesn’t see 3-D printers ever being able to compete with mass production facilities in terms of cost-effectiveness and manufacturing speed, he says that right now “there are a lot of things we don’t make because they’re not viable in small quantities.” Manufacturing objects with 3-D printing offers people the opportunity to design custom-made pieces—lampshades, jewelry, artistic knobs, and furniture—with complex geometries.
Fabrication of some everyday objects that are now being mass produced could even shift into the realm of 3-D printing. Eye-glass frames, for instance, are pumped out of factories in large quantities. Based on a head scan, however, consumers could use modeling software to design and print custom-fit frames at home,
Before this personal manufacturing revolution can take place, though, researchers will need to develop a broader array of robust printing materials and, of course, low-cost printers with user-friendly software. Some machines printing at low resolution with simple materials are now available for less than $4,000 on websites such as Makerbot.com. But as it was in the personal computing revolution, a lot of the initial, exciting materials development and testing will be carried out on high-end (>$50,000) machines in industry and academia.
Even though 3-D printing is a rapidly growing market, about 70% of its more than $1 billion in sales currently comes from printed prototypes or model parts made of substances such as plastics