The first patent for 3D printing was filed in the 1980s, and as such, the industry remained quite small until they expired and the information was available to the masses. As of 2020 there were more than 170 3D printing manufacturers across the globe, and the average joe can purchase a small-scale 3D printer for a few hundred dollars.
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These small-scale designs can create plastic (with bio-degradable ink available) objects like gears, cups and tools, but large-scale designs are now available, too, and with the abilities to “print” small homes, this inexpensive building technique is being looked at as a means of disaster relief and as a primary resource for emergency management.
Some of the largest 3D printer designs stand at 40 feet tall and 20 feet wide and create complete low-cost homes that use new technology that makes the materials eco-friendly, as well. The printer needs to be built on site, so it is not something that can provide immediate relief, but it can create full shelters at a very fast pace.
3D printed buildings are also available on a slightly smaller scale via a mobile unit created by the company Apis Cor. These units can move from place to place, creating small homes at rapid clips for those displaced by natural disasters.
The Millebot is one such design that fits into a shipping container and has the ability to print multiple materials such as aluminum and steel, as well as many plastic composites like the earliest designs and smaller-scale models. The bot is pre-programmed and prints very fast, and with all the electronics already built in to the shippable unit, once it is delivered, it is good to go. For disaster relief purposes, this can mean instant creation of items needed to repair homes, infrastructure, etc.
Along the lines of the old “teach a man to fish” adage, 3D printing systems that create tools on site offer a lot of benefits when in a disaster relief situation. These units are much smaller, and utilize rapid printing techniques to create tools in a matter of minutes that are on-demand for a given use related to disaster relief. In some parts of the world, tools and hardware are not standardized, so finding replacements after a disaster can be literally impossible, but with 3D printing, the tool for the job can be made with the push of a few buttons.
Unfortunately, buildings and other structures are not the only things that get physically altered by natural disasters, as people often get injured as well. 3D printing in the medical field has already been able to help lower costs of certain treatments, and prosthetics (historically very expensive) are now being produced by 3D printers, as well. On-site technicians after a given disaster can work with doctors to create prosthetic fingers, hands, and limbs that can be rapidly created and surgically attached.
Beyond Disaster Relief
3D printing is still a very new technology as far as the masses are concerned, and innovative minds are working hard to utilize it in many ways. Some are financially driven, of course, but a lot of humanitarianism is going into the research, and things like water filtration stations, wellness equipment, and first aid objects can now be produced on-site with these printers to locations who previously struggled to get items due to weather or locale issues.
This innovative technology is already saving lives, and it is exciting to see how much more it will be able to accomplish for the good of the world.