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February 13, 2014

3-D printing turns ideas into reality right before your eyes


In what might be the most important technological innovation since the home computer, 3-D printers now allows engineers, designers and scientists to turn their ideas into physical realities right before their eyes.

3-D printing was invented 30 years ago, but it’s now coming of age. The devices can print in all kinds of metals, produce food and even human tissue. And the technology is coming home, just as computers did in the early 1980s.

But as exciting as the technology is, scientists are still working out some kinks. A 3-D printer can take many hours to print a complicated object.

Artist Micah Scott, who used to be a Silicon Valley hardware and software designer, is using a 3-D printer to create an LED art project.

“With 3-D printers, I have definitely been in that position where I’m kind of astounded to be holding this physical object that I had just designed hours ago,” she said.

However, the latest piece in her project took the printer took 18 hours to complete.

3-D printers have also raised safety concerns, as blueprints for 3-D printed firearms can now be found and downloaded online. A properly printed gun could be undetectable to metal detectors, while an improperly printed gun could explode in the user’s hand.

Although they are expensive, these printers are already being used as an education tool in classrooms, and are getting students excited about the possibilities of engineering.

“This is like what I want to do to see what I want to do with my future, if I want to be engineer or do I want to go into something else?” said Lamie West, a student at Buford Middle School in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Warm up questions
  1. What do you know about 3-D printers?
  2. What are the similarities and differences between 3-D printers and a printer you might find at home?
  3. What is a prototype? Why is a prototype important?
Discussion questions
  1. If you had a 3-D printer, what would you use it for? Do you think it would make a significant difference in your life?
  2. What industries would be affected by a world where everyone had a 3-D printer?
  3. Do you think that one day everyone will have a 3-D printer in their home? Why or why not?
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