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NCSS: Time, Continuity, and Change • Production, Distribution, and Consumption • Science, Technology, and Society

SCIENCE & TECHNOLOGY

How 3-D Printing is Changing the World

3-D printers are already being used to create everything from motorcycles to artificial limbs. What’s next for this exciting technology?

As You Read, Think About: How are 3-D printers helping individuals and society as a whole?

Imagine waking up one day and—poof!—there’s a new school right across the street. It seems to have appeared overnight.

This may sound like magic, but it happened recently in the African country of Malawi. A small village there is now home to the world’s first 3-D printed school. Its concrete walls were built in just 15 hours.

Before the school opened in June 2021, kids in the area had to walk miles to reach school. That’s a common problem in Malawi, which the United Nations estimates needs about 36,000 more classrooms to meet demand. Building that many classrooms would ordinarily take 70 years, experts say. But with the help of 3-D printers, the job could be done in less than a decade.

Imagine waking up one day and poof! There is a new school right across the street. It seems to have appeared overnight.

This may sound like magic. But it happened recently in the African country of Malawi. A small village there is now home to the world’s first 3-D printed school. Its concrete walls were built in just 15 hours.

Before the school opened in June 2021, kids in the area had to walk miles to reach school. That is a common problem in Malawi. The United Nations estimates that Malawi needs about 36,000 more classrooms to meet demand. Experts say building that many classrooms would ordinarily take 70 years. But the job could be done in less than a decade with the help of 3-D printers.

Bennie Khanyizira/Homeline Media/14Trees.com

The walls of this school in Malawi were built using a 3-D printer.

Why stop with schools? In Mexico, an entire 3-D printed community of 50 homes will soon provide affordable housing for families in need. Around the globe, 3-D printers are cranking out everything from a simulated Martian habitat to human body parts. They’re even available for use at home. Personal 3-D printers, which are about the size of a microwave, can print toys, jewelry, tools, and more.

The latest 3-D printers are “just getting better and faster,” says John Hart, an expert in 3-D printing at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “The idea that you can produce things of very high value and produce them digitally is transformative.”

Why stop with schools? An entire 3-D printed community of 50 homes will soon provide affordable housing in Mexico for families in need. Around the globe, 3-D printers are cranking out everything from a simulated Martian habitat to human body parts. They are even available for use at home. Personal 3-D printers are about the size of a microwave. They can print toys, jewelry, tools, and more.

The latest 3-D printers are “just getting better and faster,” says John Hart. He is an expert in 3-D printing at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “The idea that you can produce things of very high value and produce them digitally is transformative.”

Kyrylo Glivin/Alamy Stock Photo

Personal 3-D printers cost about $200 and can be used to make toys like this one.

How It Works

Most of us are likely familiar with traditional printers, which use ink to create words and images on paper. But 3-D printers work differently. They use materials such as plastic, metal, or concrete to create solid three-dimensional objects—meaning they have length, width, and height.

Let’s say you want to use a 3-D printer to make a plastic phone case. First, a computer program lays out an image of the design. That image is sent to the 3-D printer, which has spools of plastic thread. The thread is then pushed through heated nozzles. The melted plastic is deposited onto a platform to make the first layer. More layers are added on top of previous ones until the case is complete.

Most of us are likely familiar with traditional printers. They use ink to create words and images on paper. But 3-D printers work differently. They use materials such as plastic, metal, or concrete to create solid three-dimensional objects. 3-D means they have length, width, and height.

Say you want to use a 3-D printer to make a plastic phone case. First, a computer program lays out an image of the design. That image is sent to the 3-D printer, which has spools of plastic thread. The thread is pushed through heated nozzles. The melted plastic is deposited onto a platform to make the first layer. More layers are then added on top of previous ones until the case is complete.

Just Getting Started 

People are already doing amazing things with 3-D printers, so it’s easy to forget that they’ve been around for only a few decades. The first patent for a 3-D printer was issued in 1986, to an American inventor.

Today’s 3-D printers have many advantages. For one thing, the technology allows people to produce things as they need them.

People are already doing amazing things with 3-D printers. It is easy to forget that the printers have been around for only a few decades. The first patent for a 3-D printer was issued in 1986, to an American inventor.

Today’s 3-D printers have many advantages. For one thing, the technology lets people make things as they need them.

3-D printers may one day be able to create fully functional human organs!

Consider the 7,000 pounds of spare parts that NASA, the U.S. space agency, sends to the International Space Station (ISS) every year. (The ISS is a giant research lab that orbits Earth.) Most of those parts are never used—they’re sent just in case. What if the astronauts could simply 3-D print such supplies on demand? Doing so would be much cheaper. Shipping goods from Earth to space costs $10,000 a pound! NASA is now exploring the possibility.

Another plus: 3-D printing tends to be less wasteful than traditional manufacturing. That’s because the printers use just enough material to make an object. In conventional manufacturing, some material is usually left over. (Think about how a large piece of fabric is cut down to form a T-shirt, leaving scraps.)

3-D printing can also generate complex shapes. In medicine, that’s allowing people—and animals—to have prosthetic limbs custom-made for their bodies. Doctors are hoping to eventually 3-D print human organs for people who need transplants.

Consider the 7,000 pounds of spare parts that NASA, the U.S. space agency, sends to the International Space Station (ISS) every year. (The ISS is a giant research lab that orbits Earth.) Most of those parts are never used. They are sent just in case. What if the astronauts could simply 3-D print such supplies on demand? Doing so would be much cheaper. Shipping goods from Earth to space costs $10,000 a pound! NASA is now exploring 3-D printing on demand.

Another plus: 3-D printing tends to be less wasteful than traditional manufacturing. The reason is that the printers use just enough material to make an object. In conventional manufacturing, some material is usually left over. (Think about how a large piece of fabric is cut down to form a T-shirt. It leaves scraps.)

3-D printing can also make complex shapes. In medicine, that is allowing people and animals to have prosthetic limbs custom-made for their bodies. Doctors are hoping to eventually 3-D print human organs for people who need transplants.

Printing Possibilities!

Check out three of the latest 3-D printed innovations.

Speedy Sneakers

Courtesy Adidas

Adidas 4DFWD sneakers feature 3-D printed lattice midsoles that are said to propel runners forward. You may have seen them on athletes last summer at the Olympics in Japan.

Adidas 4DFWD sneakers feature 3-D printed lattice midsoles that are said to propel runners forward. You may have seen them on athletes last summer at the Olympics in Japan.

Housing for Mars

ICON via NASA

A 3-D printer is being used to build a fake Martian habitat for NASA in Houston, Texas. The 1,700-square-foot concrete facility will house four volunteers for a year to test whether scientists could survive long-term stays on Mars.

A 3-D printer is being used to build a fake Martian habitat for NASA in Houston, Texas. The 1,700-square-foot concrete facility will house four volunteers for a year to test whether scientists could survive long-term stays on Mars.

Artificial Limbs

Courtesy TrueLimb

A traditional prosthetic arm can cost as much as $80,000. A 3-D printed alternative called TrueLimb is available for a fraction of the cost—about $8,000. The battery-powered arm is more lightweight than traditional prosthetics and is customized to match the user’s skin tone.

A traditional prosthetic arm can cost as much as $80,000. A 3-D printed alternative called TrueLimb is available for a fraction of the cost—about $8,000. The battery-powered arm is more lightweight than traditional prosthetics and is customized to match the user’s skin tone.

The Future in 3-D

So if the technology is so useful, will we 3-D print everything one day? Probably not, experts say, in part because traditional manufacturing is still the most efficient way to mass-produce most items. 3-D printing can also be expensive. A high-end version of the machine can cost more than $500,000.

Most likely, 3-D printing will be used to create certain components of products, while other parts will continue to be made traditionally. At the school in Malawi, for example, the walls were 3-D printed, while the doors, windows, and roof were built the old-fashioned way.

For now, scientists are working on other 3-D printed innovations that could transform our daily lives—including 3-D printed clothing and food. They’re also trying to speed up and improve the process.

“For the next generation, it’s not that 3-D printing is going to be used to make every product,” Hart predicts. “But it’s going to touch a lot of products along their life cycle.” Maybe even your outfit and your lunch!

So if the technology is so useful, will we 3-D print everything one day? Experts say probably not. That is in part because traditional manufacturing is still the most efficient way to mass-produce most items. 3-D printing can also be expensive. A high-end version of a 3-D printer can cost more than $500,000.

3-D printing will most likely be used to create certain parts of products. Other parts will continue to be made traditionally. At the school in Malawi, for example, the walls were 3-D printed. The doors, windows, and roof were built the old-fashioned way.

For now, scientists are working on other 3-D printed innovations that could transform our daily lives. This includes 3-D printed clothing and food. Scientists are also trying to speed up and improve the process.

“For the next generation, it’s not that 3-D printing is going to be used to make every product,” Hart predicts. “But it’s going to touch a lot of products along their life cycle.” Maybe even your outfit and your lunch!

Write About It! Why might John Hart call 3-D printers“transformative”? Write an essay that explains how the machines work and how they’re changing the world.

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