Last November, when Chris Anderson announced he was quitting the most envied position in the publishing industry, – Editor-in-Chief of Wired, the most read technology magazine – to pursue the life of an entrepreneur in 3D printing, many people would have though he had gone crazy.

During the presentation of his latest book, Makers: the new industrial revolution, he explained the reasons for such decision. 3D printers represent a new phase of the industrial revolution. “It will be bigger than the Web,” he said.

The 3D printing revolution has ushered in a new era of customization. Human bones, fuel-efficient car parts… 3D printers promise to be “replicators” that enable us to photocopy reality. As you read this, engineers are using 3D printing technology to experiment with commercial airplane design, doctors are whizzing out organs, and NASA is testing 3D printers that are destined to land on Mars.

3D printing technology has been around since the 1980′s. Charles Hull, an American inventor with over 60 US patents, developed the first 3D printer in 1984. At that time, these machines were immensely expensive and were largely relegated to labs and a few businesses. 3D printers started to become more commonly available during the 1990s, when the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) unveiled a major breakthrough with the adaptation of 2D ink-jet printing techniques to 3D printers. The printer sprayed thousands of thin layers, gradually building up the completed object. In 1995, Z Corporation licensed MIT’s breakthrough and started to develop 3D printers for the general market. As early as 1996, the term “3D Printing” was coined and, since then, more groups have found uses for the technology thanks to their rapid prototyping capabilities.

3D printing works like this: First you call up a blueprint on your computer screen and tinker with its shape and color where necessary. Then you press print. A machine nearby whirrs into life and builds up the object gradually, either by depositing material from a nozzle, or by selectively solidifying a thin layer of plastic or metal dust using tiny drops of glue or a tightly focused beam. Products are thus built up by progressively adding material, one layer at a time. Whatever you can think of, you can now scan and print it to make your production line a whole lot more efficient. The beauty of the technology is that it does not need to happen in a factory. Small items can be made by a machine like a desktop printer, in the corner of an office, a shop or even a house.

3D printing has the potential to transform manufacturing because it lowers the costs and risks. No longer does a producer have to make thousands, or hundreds of thousands, of items to recover his fixed costs. In a world where economies of scale do not matter any more, mass-manufacturing identical items may not be necessary or appropriate, especially as 3D printing allows for a great deal of customization. In the future some experts envision consumers downloading products as we do now with digital music and printing them out at home fitted to their own tastes.

Among the many uses for 3D printing technology, one of the most impactful is how it can be used to improve healthcare.

In February 2012, an 83-year-old British woman became the first person to receive a 3D-printed jawbone transplant. Instead of performing reconstructive surgery, doctors at the Biomedical Research Institute at Hasselt University, Belgium, teamed up with metal-parts manufacturer LayerWise to replace the patient’s lower jawbone. Made entirely of 33,000 layers of titanium powder, the 3-D printed jawbone took less than a day to produce.

Last March, an unnamed man in the northeastern U.S. had 75% of his skull replaced by a 3-D printed implant made by Oxford Performance Materials, a Connecticut-based biomedical company. The replacement bone took only five days to fabricate. It is made of PEKK, a biomedical implant polymer that is mechanically similar to bone and is osteoconductive, meaning bone cells will grow and attach to small details on its surface. It doesn’t interfere with X-ray equipment. The treatment could be used to replace cancerous bone in the skull, car accident victims and people with head trauma.

Creating custom prosthetic limbs for amputees and people suffering serious disabilities is perhaps one of the most disruptive applications of 3D printing in the medical world. Traditionally, amputees have been offered one-size-fits-all prosthetics, functional but not particularly attractive. Now, thanks to 3D printing, the line between medical devices and sculpture is blurring. US industrial designer Scott Summit, co-founder of 3Dsystems company (formerly Bespoke Innovations), is using the technology to create personalized artificial limbs that cost a tenth of similar ones made using traditional methods. For example, in the case of a person who has lost a leg, the remaining one is scanned and the shape of the prosthetic cover is created. It can be entirely customized with different materials – leather, chrome, heavy-duty plastic – and some people even choose patterns or a tattoo to make it more attractive. Once the 3D computer scan is finished the printing begins, building up very thin cross sectional slices until the final piece is completed and ready to implant.

3D printing not only allows to design and to sell body parts. It has also the potential to eliminate waiting lists for a transplant making possible to grow your own replacement organs. Organ printing consists of using the technology to create human organs and tissues made from the recipient’s own genetic material. This is not small thing: skin, windpipes, bladders and more complex structures like hearts, could be printed on demand with the click of a computer mouse. Since these printed organs or tissues are made from the patient’s own cells –contrary to those of a donated heart or liver, for example– there would be no or very little risk of an immune response, which lessens the need for debilitating immunosuppressive drugs.

In 2003, Anthony Atala, director of the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine, published a pioneering work in Nature Biotechnology journal showing that miniature kidneys could be engineered, and these experimental kidneys were shown to be functional, able to filter blood and produce and dilute urine. The demonstration of the experiment is available in this video. In 2009 the bioprinting company Organovo developed the first commercial 3D bioprinter and, since then, the breakthroughs in organ printing have been increasing in frequency.

Recently, the X-Prize Foundation launched the 10M OrganoGenesis X-Prize. Its goal is to eliminate the solid organ transplant wait list and to increase the number of lives saved by organ and tissue replacement. Just in the US, more than 100,000 people U.S. are waiting for a compatible organ and nearly 10,000 patients die before receiving it. The 10M of the prize will go to the first team to grow a working heart, kidney, lung or liver from a patient’s stem cells.

3D-printing technology does not just benefit the patient, but the doctor as well. It can improve medical outcomes by helping surgeons plan their surgical approaches more effectively. Imagine a person whose pelvis has been shattered in an automobile accident. The typical treatment is to X-ray or CAT-scan the broken bones, plan the surgery, and then conduct it. Since the injury may be life threatening, time is critical. 3D printing could allow scan more effectively the victim’s pelvis and reconstruct the broken bones. Surgeons could then take the printed pieces in hand, design needed replacement pieces and have them ready at the time of surgery.

At present, the primary market for 3D printers are academic institutions for disease research and pharmaceutical companies for drug testing. They help bringing down costs and passing rigorous clinical trials but their future is very bright. In fact, it is impossible to foresee the long-term impact of 3D printing. As a special report on The Economist states, the technology it is likely to disrupt every field it touches. Companies, regulators and entrepreneurs should start thinking about it now.

Lessons Learned:

  • 3D printing technology is considered an invention as disruptive as the Web.
  • 3D printers printers are becoming a part of our daily lives much sooner than anyone anticipated.
  • 3D printing technology is the main driver of a new industrial revolution much greener, less-centralized and less resource-intensive.
  • 3D printing will turn the norm.
  • 3D printing technology will accelerate product innovation reducing the time to turn a concept into a production-ready design.
  • 3D printing has the potential to revolutionize medical care and improve people’s quality of life. The technology is being used today for making better titanium bone implants, prosthetic limbs and orthodontic devices. In the future, it will allow print soft tissues such as veins and arteries and even organs to replace damaged body parts.