3D printers gaining a foothold on the future

Every now and then, some new technology comes along that promises to dramatically change our lives.

Often, the reality doesn't live up to the hype, but 3D printers may be one branch of applied science that's as good as advertised, though the 3D devices do not come without some concerns.

Nick Yarbrough is a computer programmer and member of an informal group of Grand Strand hackers and 3D printer enthusiasts, the sort of people who like to call themselves "makers."

"I like making stuff and I think it's really nice that I can sit down, come up with an idea in my head and use a computer to make it a reality," Yarbrough said.

What is a 3D printer? Coastal Carolina University physics professor Chris Moore says the way the device works is sort of like a hot glue gun with motors.

"It will print layer by layer, by moving around and up and down, while extruding hot plastic," Moore explains.

Three-dimensional printers made headlines last summer when a Texas student announced that he had used a printer to make a plastic gun, one that might get past a metal detector at an airport.

So, how worried should we be about terrorists printing out guns that could be easily hidden and deadly?

Yarbrough says don't lose sleep over it.

"there are a lot easier ways to get a firearm than to buy a 3D printer and learn all the necessary skills," said Yarbrough.

Moore adds the kind of gun to be made from most printers today would probably be more dangerous to the person firing it than to the person it was aimed at.

He says the news media distress about 3D printed guns was overblown.

But there are other concerns about the machines.

For example, what if someday every home has a printer that could make, say, knobs, buttons or doo-dads. What would happen to companies that manufacture things like knobs, buttons and doo-dads?

Would they go out of business?

Moore says, not likely.

"3D printing will never compete with the economies of scale that you can get in a traditional manufacturing setting. 3D printing is always going to be more expensive when you're talking about manufacturing 10,000 pieces," he said.

Where 3D technology shines is in the making one-of-a-kind items, including the bio-printing of human organs for transplant purposes.

It sounds futuristic, but it's real enough to be used as a plot point in recent episodes of the ABC medical drama "Grey's Anatomy".

Soon, science fiction will meet reality.

"I think next year they're putting the first 3D printed liver into a human subject," said Yarbrough.

The best 3D printer on the Grand Strand is an $85,000 machine at Horry Georgetown Technical College that can't print human body parts, but is good at performing what these machines do best: making prototypes for manufacturers.

It can print objects with moveable parts, allowing engineers to create items they can hold in their hands instead of just view on a computer screen.

"When you have a 3D printer machine and you can just go ahead and do it and show to people, they get a better understanding of the shapes, they get a better understanding of how it's going to look," said HGTC engineering professor Suliban Deaza.

Deaza says a prototype that used to take weeks to build and cost thousands of dollars can now be done in a few hours at a cost of pennies.

Among dozens of other items, the machine has printed out small plastic models of the school's new science building that have been handed out to HGTC officials.

Though the technology holds great promise, it is still in its infancy and Moore says it will be awhile before its reaches grown-up stage.

"You won't see 3D printers available in Walmart anytime soon," Moore said. "They're very finicky and it takes quite a bit of time in order to be able to get it to print an object well."

There is evidence 3D printers have helped put people to work here on the Grand Strand.

Myrtle Beach Regional Economic Development Corporation CEO Brad Lofton says one reason PTR Industries chose to move to Horry County is because the gun manufacturer will have access to a cutting edge 3D printer at the Southeastern Institute of Manufacturing and Technology in Florence.

3D printers may help reshape our future, Moore said.

"My guess is that the future of 3D printing, where it's really going to revolutionize our society, we don't know yet, and we'll find out when it does."