In the last few years 3D printing has gone from a niche within a niche, to one of the most headline-grabbing fields in tech. Consumers haven't exactly embraced the technology, but it is beginning to trickle down into the homes of more hobbyists and entrepreneurs. The DIY community has fallen in love with its versatility and even NASA has embraced it as a way to do ad hoc repairs on the International Space Station. But really, that's just scratching the surface of what 3D printers are capable of. Vaiva Kalnikaitė and her company Dovetailed used fruit juice to print edible fruits, and surgeons have used 3D-printed parts to repair injuries. There are even people out there printing human organs and homes. We're going to be sitting down with Kalnikaitė and Anna Kaziunas France, digital fabrication editor at Maker Media, at Engadget Expand on November 8th. But in case you need a little tease to get you in the mood, we've got a short Q&A with Kalnikaitė after the break.
What is the biggest challenge facing the 3D printing field today?
Relevance to everyday consumers. At the moment, I think people struggle to imagine useful ways that they would use 3D printers in their everyday lives. I think that, at the moment, consumer 3D printers are on a trajectory to become something like sewing machines -- requiring specialized skills (like 3D modeling) and the inclination to want to design and make bespoke objects.
"Consumer 3D printers are on a trajectory to become something like sewing machines."
For 3D printing to achieve widespread adoption, both the design tools and materials choices need to grow substantially. One way to do this is by having tools that are very good at designing or customizing specific kinds of objects, rather than general-purpose 3D-modeling tools. In terms of materials, we need to move beyond just plastics. We are particularly interested in edible materials, for example.
Other than rapid prototyping, where is 3D printing going to have the most impact?
I think that the kitchen is an interesting space that we are just starting to explore. The kitchen is one of the places in the home where new and interesting appliances are welcomed. The promise that 3D printing brings in terms of customization, personalization and enabling creativity mesh well with people's interest in cooking and food. We are just beginning to see how 3D printing can make food preparation more creative and even convenient, allowing people to play with new flavor combinations, presentation and bespoke nutrition.
"The kitchen is one of the places in the home where new and interesting appliances are welcomed."
Is 3D printing ever going to replace more traditional methods of manufacturing?
For certain scales of production -- certainly. For mass manufacturing, the benefits of 3D printing seem less clear. But for "markets-of-one," 3D printing opens up possibilities that traditional methods have never been able to fulfill.
We've got plastic down pat; what's the next frontier in printing materials?
We are particularly excited by the idea of 3D printing "liquid structures," and this is what we're focused on. We look at techniques that allow you start with a liquid as your construction material, and encapsulate it into individual droplets that can then be shaped into beautiful and colorful 3D structures.
Using liquids as construction materials opens up a lot of interesting possibilities -- everything from edible things like fruit juice, to cosmetics and biological systems.
Will there come a day when people stop buying physical goods, and instead purchase files that allow them to print products at home?
"There are some really interesting and beautiful objects that are only available as 3D files."
This is already happening! At least the purchasing files part -- printing them at home is still some way off. There are some really interesting and beautiful objects that are only available as 3D files. Online 3D suppliers and 3D-printing services mean that you can get these objects made in precious metals or ceramics, which makes them more desirable and useful than the plastic objects you can currently print at home.
[Image credit: AP Photo/Jae C. Hong]