As of right now, 3-D printing is the fodder of techies and hobbyists. For anyone outside the rapid prototyping niche, it’s an ideal as much as it is an invention. A Makerbot is a symbol of the democracy of digital manifesting itself in the real world. The only problem is–when we actually get the kinks out–what will we the people actually do with these machines?
Some doctors have the right idea. They’re making use of 3-D printers to produce extremely expensive ($250,000-plus) replicas of human organs. The Wall Street Journal explains:
Surgeons at a hospital in Japan recently faced a dilemma before transplanting a parent’s liver into a child: How exactly to trim the organ to fit the space in the child’s smaller cavity while preserving its functions.
So they took a knife to a three-dimensional replica of the donor’s liver built by a machine that resembles an office printer. The model helped the doctors figure out where to carve it, leading to a successful transplant last month…
…Using medical images such as CT scans, these printers can construct translucent models made with variations of acrylic resin, enabling surgeons to understand the internal structure of the livers and kidneys, such as the direction of blood vessels or the exact location of a tumor.
A more realistic-looking model, made partly of polyvinyl alcohol, assimilates the wetness and texture of a real human liver, making it more suitable to cut with a surgical knife.
Many see 3-D printing as some omnitool that will defeat Walmarts, allowing us all to print many or all of our needs at home. While that makes sense on the Enterprise, the industrial revolution already proved that idea is a bit preposterous because large-scale manufacturing will always be either cheaper or higher quality (or both) than the local variety, meaning we’ll still benefit from buying factory-made goods.
The way I see it, 3-D printing is most promising as a tool for when we need it–a means to quickly craft custom constructs, the bespoke odds and ends that we can’t get anywhere else–that we don’t require to be durable enough for permanent use. That’s a niche, not a standard. But that’s not to put the potential of 3-D printing down. Because even if it’s not the new microwave, a 3-D printer just might save your life.