The Triple Helix @ UChicago

Fall 2013

Fall 2013


"Is the Next Big Thing Already Here?" by Katherine Oosterbaan


This year, the Victoria’s Secret fashion show featured a harbinger of the future. No, it wasn’t a novel piece of lingerie – it was the first pair of 3D printed wings. These elaborate, crystal-studded wings marked one of the first forays of this emerging technology into fashion. Of course, 3D printing’s possibilities extend far beyond the realm of fashion. 3D printing has far-reaching implications for almost every aspect of life, and its projected scope is almost limitless. You could print out a new phone or some new parts to repair your car. In a few years, 3D printed organs could be saving lives, just as 3D printed guns are taking them.  

So how does this seemingly magical technology work? The first step is to use computer-assisted design (CAD) software to create a 3D blueprint of the object that you want to print. When designing an image, it’s important to be extremely precise because the printer will print exactly what you have rendered. To make this process easier, many online forums and companies have already created designs that you can purchase or download. After the design is complete, you send it to the printer in the form of 3D polygons that the printer can interpret (imagine a statue sliced into lots of tiny layers). 3D printing is additive, which means that thin layers are deposited on top of each other, building up to produce the final product. Once the file is sent to the printer, you can choose the material you want to print in. Since this a complex process, 3D printing of an object can take hours or even days to complete [1]. 

With the choice of metal and many plastics and polymers to print with, the options for 3D printing are almost infinite. Soldiers overseas can print guns and bullets as needed. Prosthetic limbs can be tailored exactly to every person, for no additional cost. Astronauts in space can print out food and replacement parts. Jewelry, cars, art pieces, and more can be customized down to the last detail. One of the most significant advances is happening at the Cardiovascular Innovation Institute, where scientists are developing a 3D printer that is intended to print an artificial heart using stem cells extracted from the patient’s fat or bone marrow. Doctors hope to print out the tiny blood vessels and parts of the heart, attach them, and then allow the cells to work on their own to complete the assembly process—within a day [2]. While this probably won’t become an easily accessible technology for several years, the possibility that we will be able to print organs that are a perfect match and assemble them that day is certainly exciting.

Another major recent development in 3D printing is in the world of guns. A gun company in Austin has resurrected 100-year-old blueprints to 3D print a gun, and another company has produced the first 3D printed gun for widespread sale called the Liberator. This raises myriad issues because these guns can theoretically be printed with plastic, which would render them undetectable by metal detectors. Additionally, 3D printed guns would wreak havoc on ballistics identification in crimes, since they could simply be printed, used, and recycled. In response to this, the US federal government decided to conduct tests on the gun to determine whether or not it could be considered a “deadly weapon.” Their results showed that a plastic gun would explode, causing possible harm to the user, but a gun made of ABS (an enhanced plastic-based material) was fully functional [3]. Since these gun designs are floating around on the Internet, theoretically accessible to anyone with a 3D printer, this poses a significant security threat that will only increase as 3D printing technology develops. 

3D printing also poses another issue in the form of copyright infringement. Imagine that you absolutely love Star Wars and want to print out some of your favorite characters as action figures, so you download designs and do so. And just like that, you’ve broken the law. Most major film and cartoon characters are copyrighted by their agencies, as are most household name-brand items and even shapes [4]. The ability to download blueprints for free or from a nonaffiliated party without paying the actual company poses large legal ramifications. Couldn’t a company just search over the Internet and remove all offending designs? Not necessarily. In October, a free image encryption software called “Disarming Corruptor” was released, which enables users to obscure their designs and to “decrypt” them with a passkey with 100 trillion different possible combinations [5]. This poses even more risks—gun file transfers, for example—beyond simple copyright infringement. Clearly, some regulations will need to be implemented before this technology fully takes off. 

Even though 3D printing technology is being touted as the “next big thing,” it doesn’t quite seem to have caught on yet among average consumers. Last quarter, the world’s leading 3D printer company, Stratasys, sold only 5,925 printers. On the other hand, this is a sharp increase from 911 printers just a year ago, so the industry is certainly growing [6]. As more and more industries and organizations begin to realize its advantages, 3D printing could become our main source of machines, clothes, or even food. However, there will always be those who seek to use it for more nefarious purposes, and the 3D printing revolution could bring an entirely new dimension to the underground arms market, or a new shape-pirating controversy. Only time will tell if 3D printing will, in fact, become the revolution that so many predict, and how many of its risks will materialize.


[1] Petronzio, Matt. March 28, 2013. “How 3D Printing Actually Works.” Mashable, Novermber 18. 
[2] Hsu, Jeremy. November 18, 2013. “Lab-Made Heart Represents ‘Moonshot’ for 3D Printing.” livescience, November 18.
[3] Reilly, Ryan J. November 14, 2013. “Feds Printed Their Own 3D Gun And It Literally Blew Up In Their Faces.” Huffington Post, November 18.
[4] Henn, Steve. February 19, 2013. “As 3-D Printing Becomes More Accessible, Copyright Questions Arise.” NPR All Tech Considered, November 18.
[5] Greenberg, Andy. November 4, 2013. “3-D Printing ‘Encryption’ App Hides Contraband Objects In Plain Sight.” Forbes, November 18. 
[6] Madrigal, Alexis C. November 8, 2013. “Almost No One Buys 3D Printers.” The Atlantic, November 18.

UChicago Triple Helix