3-D Printing Is Next Computing Revolution: Beltway Insider

A host explains various objects created from molten plastic and a MakerBot 3-D printer at the 2013 CeBIT technology trade fair.
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A host explains various objects created from molten plastic and a MakerBot 3-D printer at the 2013 CeBIT technology trade fair.

We are standing at the cusp of a computing and industrial revolution with the use of 3-D printers, one technology expert said at a conference recently.

"Once in a generation a new technology comes along that has the potential to transform just about everything—think printing press, steam engine, telegraph and now 3-D printing," Jim Kohlenberger, a former chief of staff in the White House Office of Science and Technology, said at a conference in Brooklyn, New York on Monday evening.

Kohlenberger was joined at the event—hosted by the Brooklyn Futurists—by panelists from 3-D printing companies including Robert Steiner, the director of product development for MakerBot; Duann Scott, a designer for Shapeways, and JF Brandon, a designer for D-Shape.

(Read More: Rethinking Objects and Form Are Key to 3-D Printing Revolution)

Three-dimensional printing, or additive manufacturing, builds three-dimensional solid objects layer by layer with a printer that uses a digital model as a blueprint. Basically, designers can use software to create a template for a product and the printer reads the design pattern to make the object one layer at a time, using materials such as plastic, glass, ceramic or steel.

Like the Industrial Revolution of the 18th century or the computing revolution in the 1980's, 3-D printing stands to dramatically change the way humans think about making objects and the way we understand computing.

"This amazing thing happened, this revolutionary thing happened in personal computing, and here we are at a similar inflection point. ... Amazing things are happening," Kohlenberger said.

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President Obama gave a nod to the power of 3-D printing in February at his State of the Union Address when he asked Congress to support a $1 billion plan for 3-D printing research in hopes that it will bring manufacturing jobs back to the U.S. Some U.S. companies already use the technology to make products.

Nike used 3-D printing to make the cleat in its latest football shoe, General Electric is using the technology to make parts for aircraft, and Ford uses the technology to make prototypes. NASA, Kohlenberger pointed out, is even using 3-D printers to build parts for its next rocket, and scientists and researchers are employing a type of bioprinter that uses stem cells as its material to try to build organs.

"It's influencing everything from medicine to movies, from food to fashion, from the way we educate to the way we innovate. Amazing things are happening, but the best is up ahead," Kohlenberger said.

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On a larger scale, the 3-D Printing company D-Shape is using the technology to print off large, free-standing structures such as houses and giant sculptures.

But there are also companies like Makerbot and Shapeways that are pushing to make the technology more mainstream by enabling consumers to print off their own creations.

(Read More: The Next Big Thing: 3-D Systems' Home Printers)

"3-D printing has the ability to transform ideas and information into physical things. It has the ability to transform us from consumers of things to creators of things," Kohlenberger said. "It helps us imagine the unimaginable, to make the unmakeable and create the unthinkable."