What’s coming after 3D printing is going to change everything

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It’s now possible to use virtually any ingredient and extrude it into specific configurations with a 3D printer. The 3D printing of metal is moving along nicely and holds the possibilities of interesting combinations of metallurgy being used in numerous applications, some of which haven’t yet been imagined. More practically for the average Jane and John Doe, however, are the huge advances in the 3D printing of food. One sees plenty of novelty products being created with 3D printing tech, such as cookies with specific images, logos, or messages. 

Confectionaries printed into whatever suits one’s fancy is, however, small potatoes compared to what’s being called “the revolution of vegan meat.” Previously, meat substitutes were made from a concoction of peas, soy, beetroot, nutritional yeast, and various natural oils such as coconut fat – plus perhaps some starchier vegetable matter to add fiber and texture. New iterations of meat substitutes being created with the aid of AI algorithms and 3D printers are still using mostly the same ingredients, but 3D printing/AI tech is making products that are lightyears away from even the best ‘veggie burger’ currently on the market.

All printers print in layers and 3D printers are just an extension of the theme. Creative companies have figured out that layers are the key to taste and texture. Now, one part of new vegan meat tastes tougher, another part tastes fattier, one area is juicier, etc. In other words, vegan meat is now strikingly close to the real deal. It’s gotten so good that celebrity chefs who once wouldn’t have tolerated “fake meat” in their kitchens are now strong advocates of ‘new meat,’ and it’s all thanks to 3D printing. 

The Holy Grail, so to speak, of plant based meat would be steak. A good piece of beef steak is hard to fake. But it’s not only been done – with people giving it a 90% rating for meatiness – it’s also undergoing constant improvement, courtesy of something akin to Moore’s Law. The startups making the meat of tomorrow – created by both tech people and teams of barbecue experts, chefs, and even butchers – are attracting tens of millions of dollars in VC funding.

So, what comes after 3D printing helps revolutionize the planet’s alternative protein market? Well, what comes after are the next numbers – 4D and 5D printing. Computer-aided design (CAD) is moving beyond 3D which, if you think about it, is a repeated 2D structure, built layer by layer, until a 3D object is complete. 4D printing will add a dimension that will allow structures to change. 

This is an exciting development as unique material or customized designs could include instructions for an item to change shape when “told” to do so by some sort of stimuli. Should something be able to change in accordance with temperature or exposure to water, for example, this could lead to clothing that changes based on the environment. If an object printed with shape memory polymers can change shape, this could lead to water pipes that fix themselves, as another example. 

Imagine a medical device that releases a certain dose of medicine depending on a person’s internal body temperature. BMW and MIT have already put out an inflatable material that changes shape and size in tandem with pulses of air, and that could mean tires that repair themselves or automatically shift into a weatherized mode upon detecting snow.

Militaries would obviously love to have uniforms that provide various camouflage options that change to match an environment or a suit that keeps a soldier’s temperature stable in desert conditions, for example.

But wait, there’s more! 5D printing is not just around the corner, but already a reality. The term “5D printing” might be slightly misleading as more accurately we’re talking about “five-axis printing.” A 3D printer uses X, Y, and Z – three linear axes. A 5D printer would allow the X and Y axes to rotate, producing curved printed layers.

Considering that a girl born in 2011 has a one-in-three chance of living to the age of 100, companies that develop ways to not only extend lives but make those extra years healthy and productive for the elderly are set for huge profits. Medical professionals looking at 5D printers that would allow for printable objects with five degrees of freedom have begun writing papers on manufacturing artificial bones.

The day when people will be upgrading body parts… printing everything from a new liver to a new femur, is mind-bogglingly close. There’s a good chance that future historians will look back at the late 1980s when 3D printing was in its infancy, and use those years as a marker for the beginning of a new epoch in human history. What was once used for extruding plastic prototypes and then vegan steak will one day soon be able to create… anything! 

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