Now that the new year is officially here, all kinds of media outlets have been releasing lists of what to look out for in 2012. Technologists say that the coming year will give us the emergence of space tourism, better mobile technology, more augmented reality, advanced artificial intelligence software, and other innovations that were only science fiction just a few years ago.
Among all the advances in science, one emerging technology that may arguably have the greatest impact on society is 3D printing.
For the time being, 3D printing remains a niche technology used to create small objects like figurines or mechanical parts. Computer programs map out objects and the printer prints out one 2D layer at a time. The current market is varied, with prices ranging from $1,300 to $60,000 and building materials including wax compounds, paper, or plastic.
Although it’s a neat concept, 3D printing today is pretty impractical for most people—it’s the vast potential of the technology that makes it interesting.
Technologists predict that both the software and the hardware involved in 3D printing will come down in price and become easier to use for the average consumer. In the future, consumers may be able to replace car parts or buy a personalized toy for their kid just as easily as you can print this page today.
Last November researchers at Washington State University developed a method of printing bone-like material using a 3D printer. The printed substance acts like scaffolding for damaged bone to grow on and eventually dissolves with no negative effects. According to WSU News, the printed bone-like material “can be used in orthopedic procedures, dental work and to deliver medicine for treating osteoporosis.” Doctors may be able to custom-order bone tissue within the next few years.
Organovo, a San Diego-based biotech company, has developed the world’s first bio printer. In 2010, the printer successfully created their first bio-printed blood vessels. Just as today’s more common 3D printers create objects using plastic, wax, or paper, Organovo’s bio-printer creates blood vessels using cells from an individual.
Currently Organovo uses their printed blood vessels to test drugs. As the technology progresses, however, it is predicted that scientists will one day be able to print entire living organs. In the future, donating organs may become obsolete, and doctors can instead custom-order the organs their patients need.
In an interview with PC World Magazine, Terry Wohlers, president of the market research firm Wohlers Associates, compares the current state of 3D printing to the semiconductor industry in the 1960s. “They knew it was going to be big, he says. ‘But we didn’t know where it was going to go.’”