Modern technology certainly has its drawbacks, and if not for my active Internet addiction I’d probably never have to witness so much obsessing about royal babies and what sort of diaper they’ll use for depositing their royal droppings. Nor would I have likely have ever become vaguely familiar with the Kardashians, who I initially thought sounded like a hostile alien race whose spandex-clad leader might have seduced Captain Kirk or unleashed some strange virus onto the Enterprise in a “Star Trek” episode I somehow missed.
There are a few aspects of modern life I could do without, but in general, most technological advancements pretty much blow my mind, in a good way. Lately I’ve become fascinated with these nifty new 3-D printers I keep hearing about. They’re sort of like the old ink printers most of us had a decade ago, in that they’re large and noisy contraptions that take up half your desk, except instead of printing out pictures of Spiderman for your son to color or fun signs reminding your hubby not to forget his lunch again, they actually make…stuff.
Basically, the printers are able to build three-dimensional objects by adding successive layers of material on top of each other according to a digital blueprint. You put in a solid material (usually plastic), which is melted in the printer’s heating core and then pushed through a hole in the printing nozzle to create each tiny layer according to the specifications of your design. The printers can be used to make all sorts of neat stuff including shoes, guitars, toys designed to look exactly like a child’s drawings, and apparently even functioning guns and other weapons. Yee-ha!
These contraptions have actually been around for a while but in recent years they’ve become sleeker and easier to use, have greater capabilities, and have dropped in price to the point where they’re not entirely cost-prohibitive. Just a few years ago many cost as much as a new car, but there are currently models on the market that are edging closer to the price of a good laptop.
Many experts predict that in the very foreseeable future most of us will have one handy around the house so that when we need a new cell phone case, bike pedal, shower curtain ring or polka-dotted toy T-Rex wearing a crown and a cape, all we have to do is hit a few buttons. With new design templates available on the Internet every day, there’s no telling what sort of stuff we’ll be manufacturing in our own homes in the next decade.
Experts predict the printers will not only become accessible enough for the average consumer to figure out how to use, but they’ll also save us tons of money by allowing us to obtain finished goods at the cost of materials (after the initial investment for the device itself, of course).
Crazy, huh? If you’re still trying to get used to smartphones, you’d better hold onto your custom-designed 3-D printed hats and get ready because things are allegedly about to get wild! Need new frames for your glasses? A festive hair barrette to match your new dress? A replacement knob for your washing machine? Click, click, done.
The medical world has also found use for 3-D printers and they have even been credited with saving lives. Last year, doctors at the University of Michigan made headlines for saving the life of an Ohio baby when they “printed” a small tube they used to help the child breathe.
The 2-month-old baby suffered from a rare birth defect which caused the walls of his tiny airway to be so thin they collapse to the point where his heart was stopping on a daily basis. His doctors were in a race against time to save his young life, and they couldn’t afford to wait long enough to use techniques already in practice for patients with dysfunctional airways, such as transplanting the windpipe of a deceased donor or creating a replacement in a lab using stem cells.
The innovative docs performed a detailed CT scan of the baby’s airway, which they used to design an exact blueprint of the small device needed to support the airway. The splint, which was created in one day using plastic particles and a 3-D printer, was made from bioresorbable plastics which will dissolve in three years, giving him enough time to outgrow the condition. The child, who was initially not expected to survive the condition, has been off a respirator and home with his family for more than a year.
That’s all pretty cool, I think, but here’s where it gets really interesting. The next step for 3-D printers just might involve home-cooked gourmet meals at the touch of a button. Currently several developers are working on plans to create printers that will follow complex recipes and spit out a finished meal prepared to technical perfection after you pour in the base ingredients. It might take some of the heart (and joy) out of cooking, but it sure sounds easy.
NASA is currently funding research to create a 3-D printer that will provide food which will be used by astronauts on longer missions, potentially including a voyage to Mars. Their first goal is to create a pizza made from pouring powders into various mixing tubes and letting the machine do its magic. This innovative new product will take up less storage space and provide astronauts with more variety and nutrition than the prepackaged meals they currently use.
As tubby as we are now, can you imagine the possibilities if we had these babies in every household? We wouldn’t have to leave the couch for months at a time! Hungry? Click. Broken remote? Click. Couch cushion worn thin from excessive use? Click. Necrosis of the buttocks from sitting too long? New ass coming right up! I just hope I can find a decent template for a comfy and fashionable Snuggie.