What was a niche prototyping tool 25 years ago is fast becoming a globally competitive manufacturing method. Today’s 3-D printing industry is worth well over $2 billion, and experts estimate it’ll climb to five times that by 2021. A staggering variety of items now populate the printed landscape. Many are bizarre one-off experiments, but some are poised to reshape the world we live in, one layer at a time.
Inks of the Future
Advanced lasers that fuse metallic powders enable printers to make parts more durable than cast metal and comparable in strength to forged. GE now plans to 3-D print tens of thousands of fuel nozzles for its new, lower-emission jet engines.
Scientists can now print with living human stem cells. They can also use printing to create the blood vessels necessary to deliver oxygen and nutrients to that tissue. Next up: functioning organs, such as the pencil-tip-size livers introduced last year for pharmaceutical testing.
Created from discarded shrimp shells and the protein from silkworm fibers, Shrilk serves as a light, durable alternative to plastic filament. It’s cheap to fabricate, food-safe, biocompatible, and only takes two weeks to break down in a compost bin.
In 2014, researchers printed a proto-battery from polymers infused with graphene, a material that’s incomparably strong, flexible, and conductive. Printing improvements could potentially lead to electronics that are 1,000 times faster than today’s, with unbreakable touchscreens printed on them.
This article was originally published in the February 2015 issue of Popular Science, under the title “Our 3-D-Printed Universe.”