With the rapid acceleration of 3D printing technology, jewelry, clothing, food, and even pharmaceuticals can now be printed by machines. At EmTech 2015, a group of 3D printing leaders discuss how far the technology has come–and where it’s headed.

A surge of interest

“Having 3D printer on your desktop gets you to think differently,” said Dávid Lakatos. Lakatos, product lead at Formlabs, a desktop 3D printing company, spoke about his company’s high-end desktop 3D printers. Formlabs raised $2.9 million on Kickstarter to launch its professional 3D printer called the FORM 1.

But although affordable desktop 3D printers are recent, the technology has been around for decades. “We were in the industrial phase of 3D printing from ’84 to 2005,” said Lakatos. But in 2005, a “very different kind of 3D printing began appearing. It was for hobbyists.” This phase leads up to 2015, when there has been a surge in interest in 3D printing across industries like healthcare, the food industry, and manufacturing.

Programmable materials

At MIT’s Self-Assembly Lab, director Skylar Tibbets researches self-assembly and programmable material technologies. Today, he says, 3D printers have the capability to customize–everything from printing pills to printing food can be done via at-home printing. And not only can objects (forms) be printed, but their intended functions can be embedded into the device, as well. A lamp, for instance, can be printed to include the structure and the electrical mechanism to light it up. And 3D printers today have the ability to produce custom-products, like an artificial leg, to fit individual consumers.

One of Tibbets’s areas of focus, however, is how to customize materials for printing. “Materials themselves, like metal, glass, wood, ceramics,” Tibbets said, “are a problem.” So instead of using 3D printing solely to make products, Tibbets uses printing to augment traditional materials. He demonstrated creating a filament for wood, printing the grain of the wood onto the material, and activating the material through methods like adding water or changing the moisture in the room. This can create a material (wood) that is able to warp or fold. “We use the natural property of wood,” said Tibbbets, “and expand based on moisture. We get control over the material, we can control the grain.”

In textiles, he showed how material can stretch around a plate, print on the plate, and geometric shape can be encoded in the textile itself. “We can create pleating or tufting,” said Tibbets, “or a self-forming shoe.” This technology is allowing customization of detailing and patterning, giving 3D objects the look and feel of real materials.

Tibbets stressed that “printing is only one tool. There are a lot of tools developing that are continuing to advance that don’t get enough press, he noted. Laser cutting, water jetting, and other technologies, he said, are beginning to combine. “We are seeing more hybrid machines. And with these, we can make things we couldn’t make before.”

Where the software revolution was followed by a revolution in hardware (computer technology combined with manufacturing), we are now seeing a revolution in “smarter materials,” said Tibbets. “Material science is booming. We are pushing limits of materials to get functionality we’ve never seen before.”

Real-time design

In 2007, artists/designers/programmers Jesse Louis-Rosenberg and Jessica Rosenkrantz co-founded Nervous System, a company using simulation techniques to create new kinds of fabrication machines. At EmTech 2015, the team demonstrated how their company is using programming to allow people to “play with design in real time.”

In this case, by using a browser to make adjustments to the design of wedding rings. Not only does their technology show you how the shapes can change, but “you can see how changes are affecting the cost,” said Rosenkrantz. Their company offers the chance to “put design in the hands of customers,” said Rosencrantz. “The objects become more meaningful.”

The challenge are design and scale

3D printing still has challenges. It’s relatively slow. And most printers are fairly small. “They can’t make a bed,” said Tibbets. “Most of the things we interact with on a daily basis can’t be printed because of the scale.” And this is “one of the first times in recent history,” he said, “where you can build something you can’t design for. The capabilities in hardware side far exceed what we can do on the design side.” Ultimately, Tibbets said, “It’s not about the tool itself–it’s about the mindset.”

The future

Shawn DuBravac, chief economist and head of research for the Consumer Electronics Association, stressed the impact of computing power on the growth of 3D printing. In 1981, he said, it would have cost $75,000. Just three years later, however, the price dropped to $21,000. The difference, he said, was computer power. “In ’81, we wouldn’t have wasted computer power for graphical interface.” The technological advances, “moving from scarcity to surplus,” which allowed us to “waste the resource,” he said.

“When the price point goes down,” said DuBravac, “we don’t know what will happen.” For example, multiple image-sensors are now included on smartphones.

The result? “Selfies happened,” he said.

So “when we think about 3D printing,” DuBravac said, “we need all of the building blocks to come together. Since computers were first introduced 40 years ago, “the conversation has started to shift,” he said, “from what’s technologically possible, what we can do today that we couldn’t yesterday, to what’s technologically meaningful.”

This year, he said, 150,000 3D printers will ship worldwide. “But in 15 years, we’ll talk about it as a common thing.”