How 3D Printing Will Blur the Lines Between Data and the Physical World

3D printing discussions naturally gravitate to the physical — the remarkable machinery that can build objects layer by layer. But at its core, the rise of 3D printing is really a data revolution. 3D printing technology has the potential to tap into the power of big data in ways we’re only beginning to understand.

Think of a 3D printer as a data-to-matter translator. It takes a digital file — ones and zeroes — and turns it into a physical object. Its counterpart, the 3D scanner, can scan an object and translate it into pure data — a digital file. This back and forth translation is simple enough conceptually, but it opens up entirely new realms for innovation.

Touching Data

One promising realm is data visualization. Data scientists, engineers, researchers, and artists can use 3D printing to represent data physically, in order to make it more understandable and to spur new insights.

For example, astrophysicists at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center have used 3D printing to study Eta Carinae, one of the largest and most complex star systems in the galaxy. Astronomers have long been fascinated with the Homunculus Nebula, a massive dust-filled cloud around Eta Carinae, created by a “Great Eruption” event around 170 years ago. The NASA team used the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope in Chile to complete detailed spectral mapping of the nebula. With this data, they built and printed a precise 3D model.

A shape model of the Homunculus Nebula, courtesy of NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

The model revealed evidence, for the first time, that interactions between Eta Carinae’s two stars may have played a role in the Great Eruption and shaping the nebula. The team followed up with 3D-printed models of the stellar winds inside the nebula, based on supercomputer simulations, which revealed previously unknown fingerlike structures. The models are available for anyone to print and study, and the team hopes they will be especially useful for the blind.

Innovation in the Cloud

3D scanning and printing will also bring the flexibility of digital data to manufacturing. As the technology advances, we’ll be able to replace more and more traditional production processes with digital processes. That could fundamentally rewrite how we design and improve on products.

When you can redesign an object digitally and produce a new version right away, without having to reconfigure a complex manufacturing process, you can continually iterate. A physical object becomes more like a dataset or software, which is always improving and evolving. And through cloud computing, you can easily invite others to analyze data about physical objects and work together to improve on designs. Breaking down the barriers to collaboration unlocks unexpected insights and discoveries.

For example, the “micro-manufacturing” company Local Motors puts more than 50,000 community members to work developing and refining designs for cars and other vehicles. Among other projects, this co-creation approach yielded Strati, one of the first 3D-printed cars, which began with a community member’s design. The community continues to iterate on adaptations for the Strati, such as an open challenge to add cockpit features to entertain passengers while the car is in autonomous driving mode.

In a very different vein, the Rekrei project is employing crowdsourcing to create 3D printed replicas of ancient artwork and artifacts destroyed by ISIS, as well other acts of vandalism and and natural disasters. The community gathers photos showing the now lost artifacts from multiple angles and uses a technique called photogrammetry to create a digital model. Using these digital models, the project will then recreate the destroyed artwork through 3D printing.

Made For You, With Your Data

3D printing and scanning is also opening up unprecedented customization abilities. Traditional manufacturing is geared to a one-size-fits-all approach, due to the economies of scale inherent in mass production techniques. 3D printing will make it economical to create objects tailored to highly specialized needs — even objects built for a single person.

For example, the company Feetz uses 3D printing to create custom shoes. Customers download an app that creates a 3D model of their feet using smartphone photos. The customer selects a design, and Feetz prints the custom-fitted shoes with one of its 100 printers.

Beyond everyday fashion, this sort of customization can truly change lives. SHC Design Inc., a Japanese startup, is spearheading new approaches to creating custom 3D-printed prosthetic limbs. SHC Design’s software creates a custom digital model, typically based on a scan of the customer’s other limb. Then they print the limb using an elastic polymer. Because it’s more cost effective than the conventional approach of crafting custom limbs by hand, the approach could help bring prosthetic limbs to people with limited funds. It will also make it more feasible for people create multiple custom limbs specialized for different purposes. And when the limb wears out, the digital file already exists to create a new one.

In the future, 3D printers may even be able to create artificial organs, made from the patient’s own cells. This is still a ways off, but research is underway. In the meantime, scientists at Wake Forest University have developed a technique for scanning a scar or cut to create a digital topological map, and then printing artificial tissue directly into the wound to repair the flesh.

The Data Supply Chain

For these and many other 3D printing applications, a critical aspect of the data revolution is replacing today’s distribution infrastructure with digital transmission. Cloud computing will take the place of physical warehouses, storing inventory as digital data files rather than products on the shelf. And instead of shipping products by plane, train, and trucks, manufacturers will simply send the data to a local 3D printer. This will improve invaluable for bringing supplies to remote, impoverished villages that need them desperately.

This new mode of shipping is gaining traction today. In fact, we’re already thinking beyond our planet. If you want to get something to the crew of the International Space Station, just send the design to their onboard 3D printer.

The International Space Station’s 3-D printer, courtesy of NASA and Emmett Given

What do you think?

What are your predictions for the 3D printing data revolution?