Its use long confined to tech-savvy engineering students and Silicon Valley tinkerers, the 3-D printer has suddenly morphed into an off-the-shelf technology, with big implications for R&D and society at large. The printers, which create physical objects directly from digital renderings, could revolutionize the manufacture of everything from pharmaceuticals to automobiles.
In one notable application, chemists at the University of Glasgow last year developed a method [pdf] for assembling chemical compounds using open-source software and a pair of $2,000 3-D printers. One printer’s robotically controlled syringe deposited gels that hardened into half of a reaction vessel. A second printer painted chemical compounds into the shell, which was sealed by the first printer. The compounds then combined in the completed reaction vessel, creating new, previously unsynthesized chemicals.