This August, NASA revealed that their 3D printer for outer space—made in partnership with Made In Space, a startup based in California—passed several initial tests required for space flight. Their goal is to provide astronauts with tools to build replacement parts on demand in the space station (video). While such specialized 3D printing is making inroads in diverse areas such as aerospace, medical implants, regenerative medicine, and jewelry design, consumer 3D printing with printers small enough to fit on your desk is also developing at a fanatic pace. What will it mean when astronauts can easily replace rocket engine parts while traveling long distances in space?

The 3D printing industry is sixth among the fastest growing industries in 2013. And while President Obama has said “3D printing has the potential to revolutionize the way we make almost everything,” most people who would benefit from this new technology don’t understand the basics of the craft. At its most simple, 3D printing is a process of making three-dimensional objects by adding materials one layer at a time. If we compared traditional machining processes such as milling and drilling to sculpturing in which products are created by removing unnecessary raw materials, 3D printing is like building with Legos—raw materials (or Lego bricks) are only added to places where it’s necessary, and only one layer (or one brick) at a time.

How does such a complex process work? There are three major technologies for 3D printing: stereolithography (or SLA, video), fused deposition modeling (or FDM, video), and selective laser sintering (or SLS, video). This SlateTech Magazine article outlines the history of 3D printing, beginning with Charles Hull’s earliest experiments printing with non-ink objects in 1984. In her March 2013 Atlantic piece, Megan Garber explores “What is 3D Printing? And Will it Change the World?” She writes that in just a few years’ time, 3D printing technology “could be as ubiquitous and as easy-to-use as a camera phone.” Just imagine a world where objects can be drafted and created from the comfort of your own home desk.

But like any early-stage technology, the costs to individual consumers may be prohibitive. Even still, while the price for consumer desktop 3D printers such as Makerbot (acquired by Stratasys early this year) still hovers above 1k, open source 3D printers, exemplified by RepRap Project, have been driving the price tag to as low as $500. Online 3D printing services such as Shapeways offer to print and deliver custom items for as low as a few dollars (the price depends on the size and material required). With major companies selling 3D printers via retail portals such as Amazon and Office Depot, and with Microsoft providing native support for 3D printers in Windows 8, it is not difficult to conclude that the price of desktop 3D printers will continue to drop; most likely, there will soon come a day when 3D printers are bought and used in the same way as laser printers today.

For skeptics, the question remains: Why does 3D printing matter? As argued in this The New Observer article, new advances in 3D design and modeling software (such as Autodesk, Blender, Rhino 3D, and Google SketchUp) place us at the beginning of another manufacturing revolution. In addition, the products created by 3D printing are in stark contrast with the mass-produced manufactured products one usually gets from supermarkets or shopping malls.

And, as recently as last month, Elon Musk hopped on the 3D printing bandwagon with an announcement of his latest invention: gesture-based 3D printing, which would replace the clunky and often user-ostracizing experience of current 3D printing systems. While much of this industry feels futuristic, the reality is that 3D printing is very real, and will very much become the norm of human existence. What this will mean for issues of copyright, the manufacturing industry, public policy, and even human health has yet to be determined but is explored in this 2010 white paper by Michael Weinberg, “It Will Be Awesome if They Don’t Screw it Up: 3D Printing, Intellectual Property, and the Fight Over the Next Great Disruptive Technology.”

World, fasten your seatbelts.

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About The Author

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Postdoctoral Researcher at Harvard University

Dr. Wendong Wang is a materials chemist. Born and raised in Nanjing, China, he obtained his BSc from Nanjing University and his PhD from the University of Toronto. He now works as a postdoctoral researcher in the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences at Harvard University and the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering. He has published more than ten papers in peer-reviewed scientific journals in the areas of materials science and chemistry.