Will 3D printing change my world?

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1. Extra dimensions

The ability to print or replicate items and objects of varying size, shape and complexity using 3D technology has been with us for some time. Since 1984 in fact, when 3D printing was first conceived – though back then it was called stereolithography.

Since then the technology has come on in leaps and bounds. From replicating working human and animal organs, to printing 3D blood cells, prosthetic limbs, to building houses and even the world's first 3D-printed gun.

But with the technology continuing to advance and evolve, where will it go next and what will it be used for? City or world building? Medical technology or space exploration? Let's find out...

2. WATCH: 3D printing the world

3D printing is shaping and improving the world we live in every day, from the printing of homes and tools, to prosthetic limbs and vital organs for humans and animals. The possibilities seem endless, and who knows? Maybe they are.

3. 3D printing through the years

A look back at where 3D printing started and how far it has come over the years.

  • 1984 – Charles 'Chuck' Hull invents the first form of 3D printing: Stereolighography.
  • 1992 – The first Stereolithographic Apparatus (SLA) is made by 3D Systems.
  • 1999 – The first 3D organ (a bladder) is created using the patient's own cells.
  • 2002 – A mini animal kidney is created that can filter blood and produce diluted urine.
  • 2006 – A 3D printer is developed that can print in multiple materials.
  • 2008 – The first prosthetic leg is 3D printed. It is built with complex structures that require no assembly. Customised prosthetic limbs soon follow.
  • 2013 – The first gun made with 3D printer technology is fired in the US. The Defence Department stops the blueprints being made available online.
  • 2014 – A Chinese company becomes the first in the world to 3D print 2,000 sq ft houses.
  • 2014 – The first 3D printer is installed on the International Space Station. NASA describes it as "a critical first step for in-space manufacturing".

4. How it's done

How the 3D printing process works


The process of printing 3D objects is not overly complex. It all starts with an idea or design for an object, which is read by a computer and sent to the printer for creation. Follow the steps in this infographic to see how.

5. To infinity and beyond

3D printing could be the stepping stone that takes us to worlds beyond our own, writes David Shukman.

The first 3D printers that emerged in the 1980s were relatively crude and greeted with scorn. But that is no longer the case.

From critical components for RAF fighter jets to replacement body parts for the disabled, 3D printing offers a bewildering array of possibilities.

And two factors are key.

The first is that while the earliest printers could only use a limited range of polymers as the raw material, these days anything seems possible - even biological tissue.

The second is that manufacturing is no longer limited by geography – advanced production is no longer in the hands of some distant factory.

The printing of a spanner on the International Space Station was just the start. The European Space Agency plans to build a base on the Moon printed from lunar dust.

And the thinking is not just in three dimensions.

One idea is for 4D printing in which time plays a part. Structures, printed in space, would be designed to unfold to form new spacecraft.

Only a few decades ago 3D printing was an obscure curiosity, a novelty with limited application and possibility. Now it may allow humans to explore worlds beyond our own.