Six Dream Projects of the 3-D Printing Pioneers

They can print houses on the moon and change the course of science education forever--and they might be closer to fruition than you'd think

3-D printing is a young technology, but its pioneers and champions aren't satisfied with printing cars, airplane parts, or tiny edible spaceships--they're always looking down the road at what's next. We talked with some of the best minds in 3-D printing about their dream projects--not what's possible now, but what their current work might lead to in five or ten years. These six dream projects are pretty astounding, and what's most striking is how attainable they seem. These aren't pipe dreams. They're our future.

Right now, 3-D printing is relatively primitive, especially when using the cheaper, simpler printers designed to get more hobbyists experimenting with the new technology. Current 3-D printing projects include Marcelo Coelho's Digital Chocolatier, which extrudes layers of chocolate, caramel, nuts, and other candy components to create a custom-designed candy bar. But from these simple roots, these designers all see incredible projects springing forth in the future.

The next step for 3-D printing seems to be figuring out a way to print multiple substrates at once. To print entire working machines, for example, you've got to print mechanical objects, batteries, and silicon chips, all at the same time. (To see how that works, check out our interactive animation.) But none of the 3-D printing experts I spoke to showed the slightest uncertainty that that hurdle would be overcome. It was never "if we can figure out a way," but always "when we figure out a way."

I did find a division in the way these scientists, engineers, and designers see 3-D printing. Some, like Hod Lipson of Cornell University's Fab@Home group, compare 3-D printers to computers, saying their functionality and design will evolve in ways we can't predict, but which will end up vital to our daily lives, regardless of their eventual form. Others, like Enrico Dini, are dreamers, seeing 3-D printers as less a personal fabrication device and more a new medium for a restless muse to exploit. But they are all entranced with the possibilities presented by 3-D printers, and though their dream projects are varied, they're all pretty amazing.

Oh, and if you're curious about how a 3-D printer actually works, don't forget to check out our interactive animation--it's both simpler and more complicated than you'd think.

Watching a Freshly-Printed Robot Crawl Out of the Printer

Hod Lipson, a roboticist and supervisor of Cornell University's Fab@Home project, is working towards a goal that, like so many others in the 3-D printing world, sounds simple, but is anything but. He wants to print a robot, all in one shot, and have it walk (or crawl, or slither) out of the printer, fully formed. The project is actually not too far off; at this point, the Fab@Home team can create all of the individual components, including a battery and an actuator, in a 3-D printer--but they don't want to print these components separately and assemble them later. To print it all in one shot, from bottom to top, they'll need to be able to print several different materials at once. The battery alone, though geometrically fairly simple, requires about five different materials, some of which are pretty nasty. "In an alkaline battery," says Lipson, "the most challenging [to print] is the separator layer, which in most batteries is essentially a piece of paper. Ironically, the one thing we can't print is paper." To solve that problem, Lipson ended up using a sort of gel to separate the anode and cathode, while still allowing ions to flow through. This final battery has about half the efficiency of a commercial battery, but that will improve in time. The next steps are to print an actuator, a mechanical device that converts energy to motion. After that, it's getting the battery to power the actuator. And then comes the final problem: Printing all this stuff at the same time. But given the speed with which Lipson's team is moving, he predicts that they'll be able to print a simple robot that'll be able to crawl out of the printer "in the next year or two," he says. [Pictured: the Model 2 Fab@Home printer]Fab@Home

Controlling Your Diet, Down to the Smallest Mineral

Marcelo Coelho, an industrial designer at the Fluid Interfaces Group within MIT's Media Lab, is the creator of the Digital Chocolatier, which would look like a dangerous tool for nefarious medical experiments if it wasn't usually filled with chocolate and nuts. Created in 2010, the prototype uses four nozzles to squirt candy ingredients like melted chocolate into a thermoelectric cup, which rapidly cools and hardens the candy. "Mostly, people don't make anything in their homes," says Coelho. "The one thing people do make is food--everyone cooks." The Digital Fabricator, currently a dream concept, takes the Digital Chocolatier to the next level. Instead of just printing pre-designed layers of chocolate, nougat, and nuts, the Digital Fabricator could print any food at all, with a much greater degree of control. You could heat or cool individual ingredients to incredibly precise temperatures, then assemble them in combinations down to the sub-millimeter. It would also deliver precise nutritional readings and manipulate the food's most minute characteristics, not just temperature and shape, but also calorie, vitamin, and mineral content. It could use an internet connection to obtain countless recipes and information as well. This isn't a personal robotic chef--it's the next oven, immersion circulator, or centrifuge. Coelho, like Hod Lipson, is a populist, convinced of the democratic worth of personal fabrication. And though Lipson has ventured into the confluence of food and 3-D printing, Coelho jumped right in. Coelho's initial motivation for getting into food is not so different from the impulse that led to molecular gastronomy, a blanket term for the use of scientific tools and procedure in high-end cooking. But while molecular gastronomy is all about experimentation, "digital gastronomy," as Coelho calls it, is more about control. Coelho's dream project is a 3-D printer that can take food--any food--and manipulate it precisely, not just in temperature or shape but in more in-depth ways like calorie, vitamin, and mineral content. When I said I thought this dream printer would be a boon to those who don't like to cook (just hit a button, and there's your complete dish!), Coelho disagreed. "It was never so much about automation, although that's a part of it," he said. "It's more about really being about to control your food." Coelho sees this device as a tool, rather than a way to avoid the process of cooking. What he wants to do instead is add to the possibilities of gastronomy. "If you look at cooking, the tools you use haven't changed in years," he says. "There's this huge missing gap between the practice of cooking and the practice of designing." With a 3-D printer like Coelho envisions, that gap could wither away.Courtesy Marcelo Coelho and Amit Zoran

Fab@School: Revolutionizing Math and Science Education

We hear a lot about Hod Lipson's Fab@Home project, the fairly inexpensive 3-D printer designed to be a sort of "first 3-D printer" for the enthusiast, in the same way the Apple I was a hobbyist machine to introduce the public to the new technology. But that's only part of Lipson's work, and his Fab@School project is at least as inspiring as Fab@Home. "In the long term, I'd like to see manufacturing in the classroom just like we see computers in the classroom: a tool." A 3-D printer in every classroom--that's a dream project with legs. Lipson first demonstrated the Fab@Home 3-D printer for his son's second-grade classroom, showing how to print a space shuttle out of two different colors of Play-Doh. It was an instant hit. "Something we've always noticed is that kids are really fascinated by this tech," he says. "Immediately the kids were excited. Some wanted bigger wings, some were calculating how many spaceships they could print with one block of Play-Doh." Though it seems like a trick, this is, at its core, a way to get kids to engage with math, engineering, and design. Later, the Fab@Home team was contacted by the University of Virginia, which wanted to supply a few schools with 3-D printers and classroom-friendly software. Some of these are 3-D printers, and some are 2-D fabricators (for example, an automatic paper trimmer--draw a shape on the computer, and the fabricator cuts it out). But the project has been a huge hit, and is moving fast. "We're working with foam cutters this week," says Lipson. "It cuts shapes out of foam using a hot wire." What's more important is to show the creators of the famously inflexible and (depending on who you ask) outdated math and science curriculums is that 3-D printers aren't just fun for the students. Lipson and his fellow 3-D printer pioneers need to show that using these devices quantitatively helps kids learn better. Lipson isn't aiming at an engineering curriculum to go along with math and science; "I would like to see it integrated into the existing curriculum," he says. The possibilities are amazing. "You can teach regular math and science concepts better--surface volume, that kind of thing--if the kids can actually make and see them," says Lipson. "You could even teach history, by making ancient artifacts." What Lipson really wants to do is encourage those who often write off math and science by an early age to think twice about ignoring it. "Kids tend to form their opinion about whether they're good at math or whether they like it by around fourth grade, so we're putting a lot of effort to try to do this before then," he says. That's tricky, because the public school curriculum is focused on basics like reading, writing, and arithmetic at that time, but Lipson sees personal fabrication and all the benefits that come from it as just as important. "When you design things, a figurine, whatever, and you press a button and you see the thing being made in front of your eyes and you take it home that day, I think there's something very empowering in that moment," says Lipson. The Fab@School project wants to make 3-D printers an essential part of education--and it might be just the kind of revolution to get our math and science programs back on track. [Check out a video of Fab@School's 2-D fabricators in action here.]Fab@School

Printing Houses on the Moon

Some of the 3-D printer pioneers we spoke to were hesitant about talking about their dream projects. This is a young technology, they said. Who knows what we'll be working on in two years, let alone ten? Enrico Dini, though, was anything but hesitant. Dini, the Italian inventor of the D-Shape 3-D printer, hasn't been shy about explaining his dream project. We've covered his D-Shape printer before, and in multiple interviews, he's talked about his dream project, which is so grandiose as to almost be unbelievable. On the other hand, considering the amount of work he's done on it, maybe his bluster is justified. Dini created the D-Shape, a 3-D printer that sets down layers of glue on granular materials like sand, creating unearthly stone-like sculptures with the types of organic curves you can't normally produce with an automated machine. So far, Dini has already used the D-Shape to make structures a few feet tall, including some eye-catching furniture, but his ambitions go much further than that. How far? Is the moon far enough for you? Dini's dream project: Bring his D-Shape up to the moon, and use it to create buildings out of moon-dust. Some of the logistics involved in hauling a giant printer up to the moon are slightly out of Dini's hands--which government will fund it? How will it be disassembled enough to fit into a shuttle?--but he's making pretty impressive progress on the parts he can control. That includes tracking down a terrestrial material with very similar properties to moon-dust (a volcanic ash he found in Italy) and actually performing tests while in a low-gravity simulator. So far, all is going well, although Dini wants his moon-dust structures to have 1.5-meter-thick walls, which may take some extra effort. [Pictured: The D-Shape's structures, on Earth (for now)]D-Shape

Printing Functional, Compatible Human Organs on the Fly

In some ways, Anthony Atala's dream project is the ultimate end-game for 3-D printing: Creating viable human tissue with the press of a button. Atala, a regenerative medicine specialist at Wake Forest University, recently demonstrated at a TED Talk how 3-D printers could be used to print human tissue that could be used in transplants. If that concept is taken a bit further, it's not inconceivable that we could be printing entire functional organs someday. The printer would require a small tissue sample to get started, but it could (theoretically, of course) scan that tissue to obtain a 3-D image, then replicate that tissue layer by layer until a complete organ is produced. Atala printed a sort of biocompatible sample or kidney mold on stage at TED to show how it could work. This sort of technology is perhaps the farthest off of any of these dream projects. But the potential is astounding: Imagine printing tissue on the fly in dangerous areas like war zones, or taking failed organs and filling them with freshly-printed, functional tissue. Regenerative medicine could be the answer to so many of our medical woes--all thanks to 3-D printers.via TED MED

Printing Different Kinds of One Substance

The need to print several different materials simultaneously is not just a problem for complex mechanical or chemical products like batteries and robots. 3-D printing has typically been limited to certain kinds of raw materials, in only one state. You can print different amounts of, say, cement, to create different thicknesses and strengths, but you can't change properties like density. Israeli-born Neri Oxman, at MIT's famed Media Lab, is looking to nature for inspiration for her 3-D printing dream project. The palm tree trunk, for example, is made of one material, but is composed differently throughout the trunk depending on its use. The outside is firm and tough, for protection, while the inside is lighter and more porous. Why not, thought Oxman, take that concept and introduce it to fabrication? Oxman is developing software that allows her to input all sorts of the usual data about a structure--stresses from the outside world, size, shape, that kind of thing--which then uses an algorithm to plan the most efficient way to print it, using different properties of the key material. She has already made some strides, with a chair (displayed in the Museum of Modern Art, and pictured above) called the Beast that moves and adjusts to your body, firm where it needs to be and soft where it can be. Though a single continuous surface, the Beast is composed of a complex design of areas with different densities and patterns that, as Technology Review says, is "soft where needed to relieve pressure and stiff where needed for support." Her dream is to use this sort of curved, organic 3-D printing to create buildings that adapt and adjust to outside stresses like storms or earthquakes.Neri Oxman