Projected to be a half a trillion dollar industry by 2025, 3D printing has the potential to drive fundamental changes in the way our physical worlds shape us.

3D printing works by applying thin layers of material, one on top of the other, to form nearly any object. Printing materials are typically plastic or metal. Specifications for objects are virtualized, transmitted, and reconstituted.

In the consumer space, 3D printing provides people with the combined benefits of shopping from home without a delivery delay. In the medical space, it is allowing surgeons to practice on models before cutting into living flesh, while future printers will be capable of creating replacement for damaged organs.

Interacting with the world shapes us and our understanding of the it. Physical objects provide a natural interface for exploring new concepts. Our manual interactions tell us a lot about how things work.

In the development of artificial intelligence, researchers created a computer that in some ways shows similar achievement levels of a 4-year-old, but lacking physical interaction with the world limits the usefulness of the computer’s knowledge. According to one of the developers, Robert Sloan:

As babies, we crawled around and yanked on things and learned that things fall. We yanked on other things and learned that dogs and cats don’t appreciate having their tails pulled. Life is a rich learning environment.

It is through these types of interactions that we learn about cause and effect, consequences, and spatial relationships.

3D printing offers the potential to not only create richer experiences but also to create new experiences, those often limited to our imaginations. Things typically relegated to distance places and other times become tangible. What would you print?

Photo credit: CC BY 2.0: Creative Tools

(This article first appeared in 2013; updated in 2018.)