OnQ Blog

3D Printing Empowers Inventors, Changes Lives

Aug 29, 2012

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It’s always heartening to see an example of technology having a profound impact on someone’s life. A great recent example is the story of how 3D printing has been helping a young girl suffering from an ailment that prevented the use of her limbs.

To solve the problem, her doctors designed a lightweight prosthetic vest system that, thanks to 3D printing, can be resized and “printed out” as the toddler grows. Previously, creating one-off vests would have been a cost-prohibitive venture for Emma’s family, but with 3D printers they now have a relatively inexpensive way to provide their daughter with “magic arms.”

Ever wondered what exactly is 3D printing and how does it work? As described by 3dprinting.net, "Each 3D-printed object begins with a digital Computer Aided Design (CAD) file, created [or scanned] with a 3D modeling program...software then slices the design into hundreds of thousands of horizontal layers. The 3D printer reads this file, and proceeds to create each layer exactly to specification. As the layers are created, they blend together with no hint of the layering visible, resulting in one three dimensional object." 

In a recent Economist article, 3D printing, or “additive manufacturing” was described as empowering; “If you can design a shape on a computer, you can turn it into an object. You can print a dozen, see if there is a market for them, and print 50 more if there is, modifying the design using feedback from early users. This will be a boon to inventors and start-ups, because trying out new products will become less risky and expensive.”

There have already been some exciting examples of inventors using 3D printing to create prototypes for objects ranging from artificial veins (created from sugars) to jumbo jets. One noteworthy advocate is Enrico Dini, a roboticist-turned-engineer and designer who created the world’s largest 3D printer with the aim of printing houses, actual stone houses. 

While 3D printing is still a relatively new technology, some are heralding its invention as a watershed event in the field of manufacturing. According to the Economist story referenced earlier, “Just as nobody could have predicted the impact of the steam engine in 1750—or the printing press in 1450, or the transistor in 1950—it is impossible to foresee the long-term impact of 3D printing. But the technology is coming, and it is likely to disrupt every field it touches.”

The scale of that future potential may be hard to get your head around, but fortunately there are some very personal examples of 3D printing in action today, which brings us back to Emma, the two-year-old in Delaware. For Emma, the technology behind the vest is less important than the fact that she can now color and feed herself — and hug her folks (and doctors), too.

Check out her story below:

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