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What is 3D printing?

Julie Sartain | March 25, 2014
Inside the magical world of 3D printing.

These types of printers cost hundreds of thousands of dollars — not in the price range of most techies, but some of these systems print custom orders; that is, you create your own custom-designed products and they print them for you (at sites like Some can be rented such as, for example, Professor Khoshnevis' $500,000 construction printer. Even if it cost $6,000 a day, your house would be complete in 20 hours, so that's cheap for a complete house.

But Khoshnevis also has other plans. In his vision, the technology would be used to renew the world's slums and repair areas destroyed by natural disasters. "Robot construction is cheaper, stronger, faster, safer, and more eco-friendly than manual construction," says Khoshnevis. "And the technology could also be used to build lunar habitats, laboratories, roads, and bridges on the Moon or Mars; structures that would eventually house humans, or even full colonies."

In addition to tools, jewelry, clothes, cars, and even houses, another big industry for 3D printing is food. Hershey and 3D Systems have partnered to create chocolates in various designs and shapes for Hershey's customers across the country; and its ChefJet printer makes an endless assortment of confectionate goodies for custom candies, cake decorations, party favors, and more. Another company called Natural Machines (headquartered in Barcelona Spain) has a machine called the Foodini that can 3D print everything from pizza to quiche to vegetarian bean burgers. Even NASA has joined the 3D printing food craze. Last year, they awarded a research contract to a company in Austin, Texas, called Systems and Materials Research Consultancy to study the possibilities of creating healthy, delicious 3D foods for the astronauts. Restaurants and bakeries across the globe (such as the Moto Restaurant in Chicago and Dos Cielos in Barcelona) are already experimenting and/or using 3D printers in their kitchens — right between the microwave and the convection oven.

Will this technology kill jobs?
According to Gartner's 2014 Top Predictions for IT Organizations and Users report; by 2018, 3D printing will cost $100 billion per year in intellectual property loss, globally. The same report also says that "by 2020, the labor reduction effect of digitization will cause social unrest and a quest for new economic models in several mature economies."

But Pete Basiliere, a research director at Gartner, doesn't necessarily agree with that sweeping prediction. "There are certain items, many items, that will never be replaced by 3D printing because it's more cost effective to make them in long runs. For example, a company such as Nike will continue to manufacturer large volumes of running shoes in low-labor-cost countries because that's the model and most people are willing to accept the same running shoe as everyone else but — for the niche runners who may be elite athletes, or others who have unique footsteps, or those with a physical disability — Nike has the capacity to make custom 3D soles and other such parts. So, while we'll always have long-run manufacturing, there are also niche applications that 3D printing is ideally suited for, and it's really the only practical way to meet these custom needs."


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