Can we 3D print a better world?

3D printing technology is transforming the way that we think, make and innovate across industries and in the home. Plastic spools, resin, powder and metal are processed into prosthetic limbs, affordable housing, bespoke medical treatment, toys, sunglasses, and more.

Even former US president Barack Obama endorsed the technology, saying it has the “potential to revolutionise the way we make almost everything”.

An American student thought so too but rather than printing medical cures, toys or missing furniture parts, Cody Wilson created and made available digital files for a gun, the Liberator handgun.

But generally, people are more excited than worried about the potential released by 3D printing – and we’re excited about the positive social impact it can have.

3D printing technology means that designers and manufacturers no longer need make for an “average” or stick to a “one size fits all” model.

British designer Benjamin Hubert is using 3D technology to design more comfortable wheelchairs. His agency, Layer, maps biometric information to create an ergonomic wheelchair, made-to-measure for each individual’s unique body shape and disability. The Enable Community Foundation prints prosthetic limbs via an online form with a tutorial to guide users on how to take measurements for the device. Over the past year, the Foundation, which is staffed by volunteers, has provided prosthetics to nearly 2000 people, up from 92 the year previous.

Others are exploring how 3D printing can be used to eliminate poverty in developing nations - and writers William Hoyle and Thomas Birtchnell authored a book on the subject in 2014. Hoyle’s charity techfortrade works with local entrepreneurs in Tanzania, Kenya, and West African countries to take e-waste components and use them to build 3D printers and then set up social businesses to find solutions local problems by creating educational aids, water and sanitation devices, toys, or by just generally offering 3D printing services.

As well as tackling social problems, 3D printing technology has the potential to reinvigorate the tradition of craftsmanship. With the arrival of mass production and the factory, handicrafts took a hard blow but the 3D printer looks to bring back individual expression and tailored production.

“Over the last 100 years, with the industrial revolution, people have lost the craft to make things and this returns that concept of being able to produce things from your own imagination,” said Professor Debra Laefer, the director of U3D, a 3D printing research centre in Dublin. Laefer’s own 9 and 11 year-old children now design and make their own toys using their home 3D printer.



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