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How 3-D printing will radically change the world

A technician checks on a 3D printer as it constructs a model human figure in the exhibition '3D: printing the future' in the Science Museum on October 8, 2013 in London, England.
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A technician checks on a 3D printer as it constructs a model human figure in the exhibition '3D: printing the future' in the Science Museum on October 8, 2013 in London, England.

If you're not excited by 3-D printing it's because you're not thinking big enough, say some technology visionaries who predict that life on Earth will soon radically change because of it.

According to these futurists, 3-D printing will make life as we know it today barely recognizable in 50 to 75 years.

"Realistically, we're going to be living to 100 ...110. With bio-printed organs, living to 110 won't be anything like living to that age today," contends Jack Uldrich, a technology trend expert. "We're already printing skin, kidneys, a replica of a beating human heart. If a person loses a limb, we'll be able to print, layer by layer, a replacement. It's theoretically possible."

Uldrich says companies will soon be able to manufacture goods domestically, with virtually no wasted materials and no need for international outsourcing.

"If we can print a shoe here, we don't have to go to China or Indonesia," he says. Uldrich also predicts the demise of the construction and agriculture industries, which he says will make many traditional methods of building and food production obsolete.

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"Right now, you have to feed a cow 20,000 gallons of water and 10,000 pounds of grain in its lifetime. Then there's the cost of slaughtering, shipping and packaging. Our grandkids will say, 'that was insane.' "

In fact, 3-D printing technology is advancing at a staggering rate. American designers are now working on 3-D printed cars, while in China and Holland, 3-D printers are building entire houses. The first 3-D printed hamburger was recently created in England, heralding the possibility of a man-made food supply.

Boeing, GE and other industry leaders are manufacturing state-of-the-art aerospace equipment with the new technology, while NASA, using Zero-G technology, is demonstrating how 3-D printers will one day be used in space.

Perhaps most dramatic are the advances being made in the medical field. Research and development of 3-D printing-based medical techniques have already saved countless lives and opened the doors to previously unimaginable possibilities in medicine.

"It's opening up a whole new world," agrees Sarah Boisvert, chief 3-D printing officer at Potomac Photonics and a technology consultant at MIT. However, she cautions that, despite its increasingly dominant presence in highly specialized industries, 3-D printing technology will not meaningfully change the lives of the average person in the foreseeable future.

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"I'm so sick of reading the hype," she admits. "Like, 'we can press a button and make anything.' Yes, that is the future and it's coming, but right now it's complicated. Not every 3-D printer can generate every material. Some guy in his garage is not going to be able to print Titanium."

"I don't want to be a naysayer, but these are grandiose notions we should keep at bay," warns Tim Shinbara, technology director at the Association of Manufacturing Technology in McLean, Virginia. Shinbara, who is currently helping create the first crowd-source designed, 3-D printed car (to be unveiled at the International Manufacturing Technology Show in October), says people's excitement should not override their common sense.

"3-D printing is not that new; we've heard all this before," Shinbara says. "Inventions like the computer changed things, yes, the world progressed, but still, we're not living in a Jetsons world. We're not flying around in cars."

One area that particularly concerns him is 3-D printed food.

"Even if it technically works, should we be doing it? If we start creating food instead of growing or harvesting it—that gets a little scary. At a molecular level, does your body accept something that's been artificially and genetically manufactured? Even if it looks the same under a microscope, what will it do to you over 10, 20 years?"

The hype over 3-D printing, say technology experts, ignores the potential problems it will create. One significant problem is the legality and ethical ramifications of widespread public use. Right now, additive manufacturing (the technical term for 3-D printing) is in its "Wild West" phase, meaning, the laws have not yet caught up with the technology.

An example of this is 3-D printed guns. Last year, blueprints for a 3-D-printable gun, The Liberator, were posted online and downloaded some 100,000 times before the State Department ordered them taken down.

"If gun control advocates hoped to prevent blueprints for the world's first fully 3-D-printable gun from spreading online, that horse has now left the barn about a hundred thousand times," Forbes magazine wrote.

A few months after The Liberator incident, President Obama extended the 1988 Undetectable Firearms Act, which prohibits the manufacture, sale or possession of guns that are undetectable by X-ray machines or metal detectors. Critics protested that 3-D printed guns could easily be modified to circumvent airport surveillance machines.

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And there are other ethical issues to be considered with 3-D printing. Though Daniel Castro, Senior Policy Analyst at the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation in Washington, DC, believes 3-D printing's capacity for innovation will ultimately benefit society, he wonders how intellectual property rights will be protected and enforced.

"I don't think we're going to be too worried about consumers printing out Mickey Mouse and Disney being mad about that," says Castro. "We're more likely to be concerned about India or China or another country stealing digital designs using corporate espionage, and then being able to perfectly replicate what's been produced in the US or elsewhere. Governments will have to hold companies accountable for what could be massive intellectual corporate property theft."

Technology gurus like Jack Uldrich, however, say there's no stopping a speeding a train. The choices are get on board, get passed by or get run over, he says.

"If you can print out food, components of homes, body parts as we age, it points to a really interesting future," he speculates. "We'll be treating animals in a humane way, rewriting the rules of society. What if we really don't need to work? In the hands of 7 billion creative people—we can't even begin to imagine how people will use this technology."

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