What 3D (and 4D) Printing is and how it’s going to give us a Star Trek Transporter

What is 3D printing? What is all the excitement about? Can I print myself a pizza? Or a pet? Will I soon be able to teleport like Captain Spock?

The Internet has turned our existence upside down. It’s changed the way we live, the way we think, the way we communicate, innovate, create, and learn. Specialists now say that they’ve found something which will have an even bigger impact on economies and society than the internet – 3D Printing.

You may not have realised it but 3D printing is already here in a big way. Some of the biggest companies are replacing conventional manufacturing techniques with 3D printing as they find it quicker, cheaper and more convenient.

Google has started printing consumer electronics, such as smartphone modules, while Boeing is 3D printing jet engines (you may have already been flown by one without knowing). Since 3D printing is perfect for making customised products, Invisalign have also used 3D printing to make invisible dental braces based on a scan of the patient’s jaw.

What is 3D printing?

3D printing or additive manufacturing is the process of making 3D solid objects from a digital prototype made using Computer Aided Design (CAD).

The concept is much the same as modern day printing – you design what you want to print on the computer, and then hit ctrl+p. The major difference is you can print 3D objects rather than 2D words, and that the printer uses a variety of materials, not just ink.

The creation of a 3D printed object is achieved by laying down successive layers of material until the entire object is created, as you can see from the video above. Each layer can be seen as a thinly sliced horizontal cross-section of the eventual object. (Thus it is very much a case of “started from the bottom now we here.”) Each layer can be very complex, meaning 3D printers can create moving parts like hinges and wheels as part of the same object.

While 3D printing started off being limited to simple plastic prototypes only, today, printers can not only handle a variety of different materials ranging from titanium to human cartilage but also produce fully functional components, including batteries, transistors, and LEDs. That means you can print almost anything – electronics, human tissue, metal or, if you’re a real Frankenstein to be, even a mixture of the above, in different materials, all from the same machine.

Why 3D printing is so fascinating

A couple of decades ago, email was a distant science fiction fantasy. The concept of sending a message halfway across the world in a split second sounded fantastical. In a similar way, 3D printing gives us the power to design a component that can be sent around the world in seconds, and built somewhere completely different in hours.

But hasn’t this idea of transferring physical objects between places almost instantaneously been seen before… in Star Trek? Although we’re far from being able to print a version of ourselves half way across the world, 3D Printing company Makerbot are letting their users ‘teleport’ plastic designs between their friends. A destructive scanning process takes apart the object layer by layer and generates an accurate CAD representation which is emailed across and printed by the recipient. You may not believe it just yet, but 3D printing in a way is a bit like the Star Trek Transporter.

3D printers are soon expected to drop in price, and the market is projected to more than double by 2020, with sales topping $5 billion a year. Americans have already created Urbee 2, a 3D printed car, while in China and Holland, 3D printers are building entire houses. The first 3D printed hamburger was created in England using the printer ‘Foodini’, (the hamburger, yet another adopted dish by the British) heralding the possibility of a completely man-made food supply. Doctors were even able to 3D print a special custom airway for a 20-month-old baby and save his life, not to mention Tal Golesworthy, who saved his own life by 3D printing a structural aortic support to repair his heart.


The Foodini makes a hamburger at the machine’s factory in Barcelona.

The most stimulating possibility of this technology is the unlimited customisation it offers. If you don’t like a particular feature of the part or object you 
are creating, you can simply tweak the CAD drawing to include your improvement
 and print another one.

But it doesn’t stop there

Brace yourself, because what’s up next is some really exciting, cutting edge stuff.

TED fellow Skylar Tibbits is shaping the next development he calls 4D printing, which is exactly like 3D printing, but involves the additional dimension of time.  In other words, a 4D printer makes 3D-printed objects that can eventually do one or both of two things: self-assemble and change properties based upon certain conditions over time.

Imagine : Shoes, tyres and clothing could be made to respond to weather conditions, changing their surface grip or their permeability; furniture could be made to self-assemble, or a 3D printed pipe could be created with the ability to sense the need to expand or contract.


Stratasys’ programmable materials can be coded to change form when exposed to water. The pictured strand was programmed to spell “MIT”. Image source: Stratasys. 

4D printing promises new possibilities for allowing programmability and simple decision making in devices made from non-electronic based materials. This allows robotics-like behaviors without the reliance on complex electro-mechanical devices.


3D printing, and even more so- 4D printing is going to be revolutionary. But what are its constraints? Could you 3D print a 3D printer? Or a gun? Or living tissue? Will you ever need to go to a store again?
This article is part one of a four part series on 3D printing. Part 2 discusses the ethical impacts of 3D printing – how do we control 3D printed weapons? Part 3 lists 10 challenges of 3D printing the media doesn’t tell you. Check back later for part 4.


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