Skip to main content

The 3-D revolution will blow you away

By Sally Kohn, CNN Political Commentator
updated 10:57 AM EDT, Wed April 30, 2014
Scientists are 3-D printing body parts ranging from plastic skulls to artificial eyes. Fripp Design and Research and Manchester Metropolitan University say they are able to 3-D print up to 150 prosthetic eyes an hour. Scientists are 3-D printing body parts ranging from plastic skulls to artificial eyes. Fripp Design and Research and Manchester Metropolitan University say they are able to 3-D print up to 150 prosthetic eyes an hour.
HIDE CAPTION
Printed eyes
Artificial ear
Artificial ear
Plastic skull
Printed skin
Robohand
Project Daniel
Bones
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • A company in China reportedly used 3-D printers to make 10 houses in a day
  • Sally Kohn: 3-D printers have potential to address problems like hunger, pollution
  • She says scientists are even experimenting with printing human tissues, organs
  • Kohn: Millions worldwide can benefit from 3-D printed houses or foods

Editor's note: Sally Kohn is a CNN political commentator, progressive activist and columnist. Follow her on Twitter @sallykohn. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN) -- A company in China reportedly used giant 3-D printers to make 10 houses in one day. This leads to two obvious questions.

First, how big were those printers? The answer is: 10 meters wide by 6.6 meters high. A mixture of cement and construction waste were sprayed to build the walls layer by layer.

And second, if 3-D printers could be used to create a neighborhood of full-sized, detached single family homes in less time and money than it would conventionally take, could 3-D printers help end homelessness?

Sally Kohn
Sally Kohn

I'm not Pollyanna-ish when it comes to ending poverty. Many of the world's problems stem from decades of government policies that fostered inequality and neglect, dynamics that cannot be easily fixed by one solution.

At the same time, I'm completely obsessed with 3-D printers, probably because I don't fully understand them, so they seem like magic sent to us from the future by Captain Picard. If these printers can make even a dent in some of the world's most pressing challenges, they would be even cooler in my book.

So, what major social and economic problems might we potentially print our way out of? Here are some possibilities.

The site of the world's first 3D printed house in northern Amsterdam. The site of the world's first 3D printed house in northern Amsterdam.
The world's first 3D printed house?
HIDE CAPTION
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
>
>>
Dutch architects to build \'world\'s first\' 3D printed house Dutch architects to build 'world's first' 3D printed house
Daniel is a Sudanese boy who lost both arms when a bomb exploded a few meters from him. When American Mick Ebeling heard Daniel's story, he decided to do something to help. Daniel is a Sudanese boy who lost both arms when a bomb exploded a few meters from him. When American Mick Ebeling heard Daniel's story, he decided to do something to help.
Project Daniel
HIDE CAPTION
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
>
>>
How a 3-D printed arm gave hope to boy maimed in bomb blast How a 3-D printed arm gave hope to boy maimed in bomb blast
Most people feel anxious when their smartphone is out of arm's reach. But what if it was actually on your arm, woven into the very fabric of your sweater? Sportswear designers Under Armour are already on the case. They recently unveiled their touchscreen t-shirt concept, Armour39, which measures your athletic performance.
It's just one recent example of how design, technology and science are coming together to form a new generation of consumer products that look set to shape the future. Most people feel anxious when their smartphone is out of arm's reach. But what if it was actually on your arm, woven into the very fabric of your sweater? Sportswear designers Under Armour are already on the case. They recently unveiled their touchscreen t-shirt concept, Armour39, which measures your athletic performance. It's just one recent example of how design, technology and science are coming together to form a new generation of consumer products that look set to shape the future.
Technology of tomorrow
HIDE CAPTION
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
>
>>
Tomorrow\'s world: designs that will define our future Tomorrow's world: designs that will define our future

Hunger

At South by Southwest this year, I got to eat candy that came out of a printer, courtesy of the folks at Deloitte. Last fall, writer A.J. Jacobs documented in The New York Times an entire meal he and his wife ate that was produced by 3-D printers, including pizza, pasta and dessert. While Jacobs needed the help of several companies and their Ph.D. staff to produce his meal, on Kickstarter, one startup tried to get funding for the "Foodini:" a 3-D food printer for home chefs.

For now, the technology is too expensive, and like many trends the exploration is happening more in high-end settings (3-D printed caviar, anyone?). But as the costs come down and the technology improves, could there be a 3-D printer making nutritious food in every village around the globe? Perhaps.

Homelessness

It's quite a feat for the Chinese company to build 10 homes in one day, but they're not the only innovators.

Earlier this year, Professor Behrokh Khoshnevis at the University of Southern California built a giant 3-D printer that can produce a basic house in one day. And in Amsterdam, construction has begun on what appears to be the first multistory -- and aesthetically pleasing -- 3-D printed house. Of course, homelessness is far more complex than simply a lack of housing. But the ability to create "affordable housing" even more affordably would not only help homeless people but also low-income individuals.

Disease

I understand stem cells even less than I understand 3-D printing, so I'm not going to say much here except to note that scientists are experimenting with what seems to be impossible but apparently isn't: printing human organs.

CNN.com reported on how bioprinters use an "ink" of stem cells to print 3-D shapes that can be placed into the human body, where hopefully the cells will be accepted by the existing tissues. Bioprinting has a lot of potential. In 2013, a little girl born without a windpipe got one thanks to a 3-D printer that rendered one out of the girl's own stem cells.

A foundation has created a $1 million prize to be awarded to whomever comes up with the first 3-D printed functioning liver, which would be a big deal to the 17,000 Americans waiting for liver transplants — and a huge sign of hope to millions of people worldwide with all kinds of organ needs because of diseases and conditions.

Pollution

There are many causes of climate change, one of which is pollution from industrial production. 3-D printing offers many promising alternatives to more traditionally wasteful and dirty manufacturing methods.

Rather than having to throw out entire products when one piece needs replacing ("planned obsolescence"), 3-D printing will make it easier to replace parts. Even complex products can be produced and assembled locally rather than shipped from across the continent, which would reduce the carbon footprint. (The raw materials will need to be shipped, but they take up less room.)

Money

Printing money is as illegal in three dimensions as it is in two. And while 3-D printing may never eliminate the need for money, it may change the demand for it.

Think about how the Internet reduced the cost of information or how Spotify has reduced the cost of music. Or how cell phones are prevalent all over the world. Imagine years into the future when 3-D printers are just as affordable and available as cell phones. Communities could meet their basic needs -- not just for food but everyday items -- with far less money.

Imagine a 3-D printer making plates and cups and toothbrushes and hammers and nails and much more for entire communities, to be shared or bartered for rather than purchased with cash. And for goods that are bought and sold, 3-D printing could maybe reduce costs without affecting production wages (I'm looking at you, Wal-Mart).

The possibilities are so exciting that the World Bank has considered the implications of 3-D printing for reducing poverty and sharing prosperity.

Let's hope 3-D printing will truly be as revolutionary as we hope.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 6:03 PM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
updated 5:52 PM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
Ruben Navarrette notes that this fall, minority students will outnumber white students at America's public schools.
updated 5:21 PM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
Humans have driven to extinction four marine mammal species in modern times. As you read this, we are on the brink of losing the fifth, write three experts.
updated 7:58 AM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
It's been ten days since Michael Brown was killed, and his family is still waiting for information from investigators about what happened to their young man, writes Mel Robbins
updated 1:23 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Sally Kohn says the Ferguson protests reflect broader patterns of racial injustice across the country, from chronic police violence and abuse against black men to the persistent economic and social exclusion of communities of color.
updated 8:42 AM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
The former U.K. prime minister and current U.N. envoy says there are 500 days left to fulfill the Millennium Goals' promise to children.
updated 9:10 AM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
Julian Zelizer says the left mistrusts Clinton but there are ways she can win support from liberals in 2016
updated 1:38 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Peter Bergen says the terror group is a huge threat in Iraq but only a potential one in the U.S.
updated 1:34 PM EDT, Sat August 16, 2014
Mark O'Mara says the way cops, media, politicians and protesters have behaved since Michael Brown's shooting shows not all the right people have learned the right lessons
updated 11:23 AM EDT, Sun August 17, 2014
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says the American military advisers in Iraq are sizing up what needs to be done and recommending accordingly
updated 3:41 PM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
Marc Lamont Hill says the President's comments on the Michael Brown shooting ignored its racial implications
updated 5:46 PM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
Joe Stork says the catastrophe in northern Iraq continues, even though many religious minorities have fled to safety: ISIS forces -- intent on purging them -- still control the area where they lived
updated 6:26 PM EDT, Thu August 14, 2014
Tim Lynch says Pentagon's policy of doling out military weapons to police forces is misguided and dangerous.
updated 9:15 AM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
S.E. Cupp says millennials want big ideas and rapid change; she talks to one of their number who serves in Congress
updated 7:57 PM EDT, Thu August 14, 2014
Dorothy Brown says the power structure is dominated by whites in a town that is 68% black. Elected officials who sat by silently as chaos erupted after Michael Brown shooting should be voted out of office
updated 7:49 AM EDT, Thu August 14, 2014
Bill Schmitz says the media and other adults should never explain suicide as a means of escaping pain. Robin Williams' tragic death offers a chance to educate about prevention
updated 11:05 AM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
Nafees Syed says President Obama should renew the quest to eliminate bias in the criminal justice system
updated 4:24 PM EDT, Thu August 14, 2014
Eric Liu says what's unfolded in the Missouri town is a shocking violation of American constitutional rights and should be a wake-up call to all
updated 3:22 PM EDT, Wed August 13, 2014
Neal Gabler says Lauren Bacall, a talent in her own right, will be defined by her marriage with the great actor Humphrey Bogart
updated 6:56 AM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
Bob Butler says the arrest of two journalists covering the Ferguson story is alarming
updated 4:35 PM EDT, Wed August 13, 2014
Mark O'Mara says we all need to work together to make sure the tension between police and African-Americans doesn't result in more tragedies
updated 4:06 PM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
Pepper Schwartz asks why young women are so entranced with Kardashian, who's putting together a 352-page book of selfies
updated 7:08 PM EDT, Wed August 13, 2014
Michael Friedman says depression does not discriminate, cannot be bargained with and shows no mercy.
updated 11:25 AM EDT, Tue August 12, 2014
LZ Granderson says we must not surrender to apathy about the injustice faced by African Americans
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT