What's Going On With 3-D Printing And How Does It Work?

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Imagine a world where everything is made by computers. Anyone who’s ever seen the movie Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, where a computer program pops out hamburgers and spaghetti, has held onto this dream. Or even the simple ability to create whatever product we needed without having to build it ourselves, just telling the computer what to do. Well, this is more of a reality than some might have guessed from those science fiction movies. 3-D printers are really changing the way products are made. We have 3-D food, and even 3-D printed weapons.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. 3-D printing isn’t really a new concept. It’s been used for years to create simple structures usually out of plastic. It works similarly to how regular printers work. You create the object you want it to print on the computer as a three-dimensional object and then the printer makes it layer by layer building it vertically from the original surface. If you ever look at paper after you grab it from your printer you’ll realize the ink isn’t flat on the sheet of paper. The ink is really slightly raised as it’s set onto the page.

3-D printers work similarly except they use hundreds of layers instead of just the one your printer uses. This method allows for a lot of flexibility in the size and shape of the printed item. These printers don’t take just ink or plastic either. You can put metals, silicon, carbon-based materials, or almost anything you can think of as the medium of which it prints. These printers used to be over $40,000 when they were first developed but now you can buy one for prices similar to that of a nice laptop computer.

In the food industry, people can take this to their advantage. You can put organic materials such as microalgae, a natural source of protein, carbohydrates, pigments, and antioxidants in there supplying hyper-concentrated forms of nutrients. This also cuts the costs of let’s say more staff or other kitchen equipment (reducing fuel emissions), subsequently lowering food costs altogether. 3-D printing could also reduce food waste because we can turn the ‘ugly’ food into more desirable looking ones. Every year over 2.9 trillion pounds of food, that’s 1/3 of all of the food produced on the planet, never gets eaten because of aesthetic reasons.

As our population rises exponentially at about two million more people every year, we need more food, faster than ever to support this ever-growing population. These 3-D printers may aid in this food dilemma. People have been known to make pizzas and cookies all the same with these printers. As far as how these food items taste, it has been said that people can’t really tell the difference. The texture leaves a bit to be desired, sure, because with the printer, the organic material comes out in a tube shape and each layer comes out of the tube in a paste and then piled on top of one another. But you can get very small, detailed, patterns and shapes this way that is also pleasing to consumers so many see past the worm-like layering.

As these printers are getting less expensive and more attainable, there also comes more novel, unpredicted uses for the machines. 3-D weapons are also a heavy topic of discussion. Back in 2013 Cody Wilson, the founder of Defense Distribute a non-profit group based out of Texas, was working on a design for a fully functional 3-D printed gun that would work for more than just a single use. ‘The Liberator’ as it’s called, aimed to show what was possible with technology. Wilson has recently posted all of the code in a CAD file for creating the gun, open access. Therefore, anyone with access to a 3-D printer can now create this firearm. This 3-D printed gun successfully blurs the lines between firearm regulation and censorship of information and has become the source of many debates. Wilson wants this to show how technology can circumvent laws until government becomes, well, a useless slap on the wrist.

These ideas have surely stirred the pot. Gun protection advocates and government officials are worried that with this technology terrorists and criminals will have access to a weapon that won’t be flagged during security checks and doesn’t have a traceable serial number. They could for instance be printed at a library, an institution funded the federal government, if no one notices. Many individuals are outraged that their tax dollars could go to such a thing. The federal court is in a frenzy to regulate this; essentially this battle is with the First and Second Amendments pitted against each other. As of right now the website with the instructions are down until the next court date later this month.

Whether you’re on board with 3-D printing or against it altogether, this is the future of industry. In food, we can develop these concentrated products rich in vitamins making fast food options more nutritious and lowering the ecological effects of high food producing companies. In politics, this can be blurred as this technology becomes more readily available for the public to use at their own discretion. No one can predict the effects of this type of technology or what individuals might do with it. 3-D guns could be ill-advised, or they could not be. Only time will tell and in this age of rapid technological advances, there are really no defined limits.