3-D printing predicted to mold our tomorrows

Experts say this technology is now where personal computing was in 1970s

The Kansas City StarJune 9, 2013 

— Tim Middleton lives and breathes now, but the mind of the 42-year-old Eudora, Kan., man often floats to the future, to what one might call the printable life.

It is a time – with tangible signs popping up with increasing frequency around the globe – when nearly any product one needs is created by simply pushing a button and printing it out in usable three dimensions.

A pair of glasses? Print it.

A knee joint? Print it.

Red taillight lens for a ’65 Mustang? Print it.

A birthday cake, a prom dress, a full-size house for a family of four?

Print away.

“I have attempted printing my own shoes,” Middleton said, laughing.

He is a graphic designer who in the past two years has instructed more than 60 people on the art and science of 3-D printing in Saturday classes at Hammerspace, a community workshop in Kansas City for builders, hobbyists and inventors.

“They’re kind of hard,” Middleton said of his shoes. “The material is a little uncomfortable. But it is absolutely a possibility.”

More than a possibility: Such specialty 3-D-printed shoes already exist, produced and sold along with 3-D-printed nylon bathing suits, jewelry and dresses by Continuum Fashion of New York.

Cakes, cookies, sailboats, toys, architectural models, musical instruments, weapons, prosthetic hands and legs: All are items in recent years proved to be producible by 3-D printers.

Interest is high enough that the federal government last year earmarked $30 million to help support a new public-private institute in Youngstown, Ohio, dedicated to promoting and funding 3-D printing research.

It is a technology – although already considered overhyped in some circles – that many manufacturing experts say is even now only in its infancy, at a place similar to where personal and business computing was in the 1970s.

Like computing, they said, 3-D printing not only is likely to change the things we make and how we make and sell them, but also change how we live in good, bad and inconceivable ways.

“It is a bit tricky to predict,” said Hod Lipson, a professor of mechanical engineering at Cornell University and co-author with Melba Kurman of “Fabricated: The New World of 3D Printing,” a 2013 book on the promises and perils of an emerging technology.

“It is a little like trying to sit down in the 1970s and predict how computers were going to be used. Everyone could predict it would automate payrolls, but no one ever predicted social media.”

Given that caveat, Lipson predicted of 3-D printing: “It is going to change everything.”

Exactly when, how and how much, of course, is hard to say.

A May article in The New England Journal of Medicine described how two Michigan doctors used a 3-D printer to save an infant’s life by printing a custom tracheal splint to support the baby’s airway.

In the past year, meanwhile, one young man’s mission to use a 3-D printer to produce a workable handgun sparked immediate outcry from the public and concerned government officials who envision the technology being used to put caches of cheap and untraceable guns into the hands of criminals or terrorists.

In May, Cody Rutledge Wilson, a Texas law student who describes himself as a crypto-anarchist, test-fired a rudimentary handgun he created on a 3-D printer he bought on eBay. He released his gun design online, prompting the U.S. State Department to demand that he remove it.

Business ethicist Kirk O. Hanson of Santa Clara University said that improved technologies frequently usher in fresh fears. Better 2-D printing fostered high-grade counterfeiting. The Internet’s role in money laundering continues to reveal itself.

Hanson said of 3-D printing: “This is simply the latest technological breakthrough that has great potential for good and great potential for harm.”

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