Earth-shaking technology has a way of lurking in the background before barging into everyday life and changing everything. Video broadcasting was developed in the 1930s but interrupted by World War II, then had to wait for the rise in postwar prosperity to find its way into the average home. And even then, who would have thought TV would sway the 1960 presidential election, shorten attention spans, reduce front-porch sitting, and “amuse us to death”?
The technology of 3-D printing dates back to the 1980s but is now ready to barge into our lives with the advent of affordable home printers. It’s both brand-new and reassuringly old. The home printers are little manufacturing plants, most of which operate by extruding polymers in layers to build up small objects. Like the print head of the dot-matrix printers of old, a nozzle travels back and forth and around, squeezing out the compound according to a program. The finished product doesn’t look like any improvement on a professionally manufactured one—in fact it may look decidedly amateur—but the process is fun to watch, and this is just the beginning. Remember, electricity started out as a parlor trick.
Metal printing, accomplished by layers of powdered steel melded by laser, has famously produced a “printed handgun.” Food printing takes unappealing organic substances, like algae, grass, and insects, and shapes them into edible products that can be tailored to specific nutritional needs. It might not do to think too hard about what goes into those products, but then again, the same holds true for ordinary hot dogs. Printed human flesh is used in plastic surgery, and work has begun on the first “printed house,” a process that will take much longer than standard construction but will eliminate transport and labor costs.
I’m enough of a Luddite to be alarmed at “what will they think of next,” but this is exactly how God the Creator made us to create: building on His original ideas and using His materials. At the moment, 3-D printing is a Wild West of open-source plans (i.e., freely available on internet sites such as Thingiverse), which can be adapted and improved by anyone with the time and know-how. Some fear a legal counterattack that ties up patents and strangles innovation, and admittedly copyright and patent laws are hardly passed these days before they’re due for an overhaul. Eventually, 3-D printing may do for manufacturing what iTunes did for the music industry and eBooks for publishing, but chances are, we’ll adapt.
Every new technology gives and takes, and there’s sure to be a downside to 3-D printing. If nothing else, it adds another brick to the modern Tower of Babel that puffs up human pride. But man’s accomplishments tend to uncover man’s limitations: For instance, the “information superhighway” broadened knowledge but also trivialized it. Christians, of all people, shouldn’t be afraid of new technology. God never stopped creating, and what causes problems also opens up opportunity.