The No. 1 question I hear asked about 3D printing is some form of ”why,” closely followed by ”what.” Why would I need one and what would I use it for? 

Unfortunately, 3D printing proponents haven’t done the best job of explaining this to date. Promotional materials and experiences focus on novelty items produced by the printers, instead of the earth-shaking, big implications 3D printing has in the business, education, and healthcare fields. I’ll tell you what I think is the ultimate why, and link to some great examples of what.

The creation of physical objects throughout history has been a story of limitations imposed on the creator’s imagination by the materials and tools/method of manufacture. The explosion of the virtual world of software and the Internet allowed us to create endlessly innovative virtual objects. However, even with the advent of computer aided design (CAD), physical output was still limited by decades old constraints on materials and tools.

3D printing is, at its core, a new set of tools (additive manufacturing) that allows us to physically produce objects that would have been impossible – or outrageously expensive to produce –  even a couple of years ago. As 3D printers have become available to consumers, prices have dropped to the $1000 entry-level printers available today.

So what is the answer to the “why?” 3D printers grant access to the creation of previously inaccessible objects along with a closer connection between imagination and the physical world. For example, the story about the Haitian boy who recently received a 3D printed prosthesis.

I believe that people most often ask “what” because they are thinking in patterns constrained by traditional tools/materials. In the future, we’ll print with food, ballistic nylon, metals and organic materials like stem cells.

The printers available to have on your desk or in your classroom today generally print with ABS or PLA plastics. These are ideal for fast prototyping of design ideas in business, where you can drastically cut  the cost of prototyping and remove barriers to innovation by providing engineers and designers with desktop 3D printers.

The final “what” then becomes the potential 3D printing offers to people who don’t stop to ask “why” in the first place. Student access to 3D printing will erode the constraints on thought patterns established by traditional tools and materials. An imagination uninhibited can reinvent objects, like the student who created a cast as unique as the person with the broken limb, or create something entirely different.

For more inspiration, I highly recommend the videos at Makerbot’s Explorers. And check out the current offering of 3D printers at CDW