3D Printing -- From Novelty to Real World Innovation

By now, everyone who doesn't live under a rock is somehow familiar with 3D printing. This technology enables a designer to take an idea that has been converted into a 3 dimensional computer file, and then send that file to a machine which literally prints the object, layer by layer, out of plastic. It's reminiscent of the Jetson's magic food machine, which allowed Jane to create a meal with just the push of a button. But like any new technology, the 3D printer started off as an industrial luxury item costing hundreds of thousands of dollars, which then evolved into a more affordable machine which just about any consumer can afford to own. It was only a matter of time before innovation latched on to the capabilities of 3D printing to create useful items that improve quality of life. There are better things to make than belt buckles and pencil holders.

A recent visit to YouTube took me to a really cool video about a guy who uses 3D printers to make prosthetic hands, after losing some fingers from one of his own in an accident. What started off as a personal journey to regain use of a hand, turned into a self-fulfilling mission to help others in the same predicament. The 3D printer makes it possible to take a concept, and interactively transform it into a working object. In this case, an idea turned into a useful medical device.

What makes 3D printing so unique, lies in the ease of use. You don't have to be a rocket scientist, and engineer, a machinist, or a programmer to use one of these machines. For as little as $1,200, a computer or laptop, and some practice with some design software (which itself can be found for free online), you can become a machine designer in the comfort of your own home. There are amazing examples online of 3D printed jewelry, medical devices, furniture, kitchen appliances, and even clothing -- all made from printed plastic.

As an owner of a Makerbot Replicator myself, I have come to understand, and am continuously amazed by, what can be done with the 3D printer. What started out as a novelty item that could print toys and widgets, has matured into an accessible, innovative tool for those of us who have ever wanted to make something, but didn't know how.

The next time you ask yourself "I wish someone would make something that does this...", be reminded that with today's 3D printing technology, that person could be you.

George Jetson, eat your heart out.