Will 3D Printing Really Change the World?

IDG Communications CEO Michael Friedenberg says it already has, as he contemplates 3-D printing technology that can create things as varied as a human liver and a new home.

What if I were to tell you that one day printers will be able to build homes, manufacture guns and cook food? That would be pretty remarkable progress, and to my surprise, it's quite possible.

The potential of 3-D printers reaches beyond revolutionizing the printing market and into transforming entire industries.

To be honest, the term "3-D printing" doesn't do justice to the true capabilities of this technology. Lucas Mearian, a senior writer at Computerworld (one of CIO's sister brands), writes frequently about this topic. In December, he wrote about the first 3-D printed organ (a liver), which is expected later this year. The month before, he explored the dangers of 3-D printed guns exploding.

Both of those examples highlight how 3-D printers can produce very complex products, one through advancing medical science, the other with thermoplastic materials.

If you take it one step further, you can see that once these printers can scale in size, much larger items can be built with little human labor. Construction of homes from 3-D printing becomes a real possibility. (There's already a video on YouTube from a TEDx talk last year about "contour crafting" and the automated construction of a house.) But if you really want to dream big, imagine sending these printers to the moon, where they could build facilities that are managed from Earth.

Not crazy enough for you? Think about the ability to actually have food available wherever there is electricity. The food would be freeze-dried, crushed and placed into "ink cartridges." With the push of a 3-D printer button, the heat it produces could cook your food.

Imagine having a 3-D printer available to print replacement parts at your business or home. When something breaks, you simply download the specs and print it out wherever you are. No customer service calls, no shipping and handling costs, no waiting.

When I think of the ramifications all this will have on intellectual property protection in just about every industry, it's more than a little mind-boggling. No wonder the Harvard Business Review wrote about this last spring under the headline, "3-D Printing Will Change the World."

I'd love to hear what CIOs are thinking about the potential of this technology. Write to me at the email address below.

Michael Friedenberg is the president of CIO magazine's parent company, IDG Communications. Email him at mfriedenberg@cio.com.

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