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.

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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.