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Additive Manufacturing: The U.S. Government's Hopes for 3D Printing

U.S. President Barack Obama gives a thumbs up after speaking to supporters at the Stroh Center on September 26, 2012 in Bowling Green, Ohio. The Obama administration has hopes for the future of 3D printing.

Not long ago I saw what looked like a big computer printer squirting not ink onto paper but plastic, to make actual harmonicas. It's called "Additive Manufacturing." There's a snappier name for it: 3D Printing.

Til now we've tended to make objects by cutting, grinding, chiseling away at metal or wood. Now we are entering the age of  making things by adding, not subtracting. The Obama administration thinks this sort of thing creates jobs, and wants to get 3D printing to a place near you. Marketplace's tech reporter Queena Kim spent a day at University of California-Irvine. Why?

"It's sort of like a big brainstorming session," said Kim. "And there's an official from the Obama Administration here--they want to come up with a billion dollars to fund 15 centers at universities where academics and business people can get together to figure out what the future of manufacturing will look like." 

To many, that future looks like 3D printing. One of the examples of 3D printing that the lab at UC Irvine was presenting to visitors like Kim this week is a skull--and it's not just for looks. By one estimate, says Kim, 3D manufacturing in the medical arena could become a several billion dollar industry. The skull replica shown to kim at UC Irvine's Rapid Tech lab belonged to a soldier who was injured in Afghanistan. A scan of the skull sent to UC Irvine's lab, which printed an exact replica and sent it Fed-Ex to a doctor, who then used the printout to design the plates and procedure that eventually saved the soldier's eyesight. A month later, the soldier was back on active duty with 20/20 vision. 

Pretty amazing stuff--and a story that suggests there could be a real future for 3D printing, and maybe, jobs the new technology could create. Of course, what remains to be seen is whether the Obama Administration can actually convince Congress to earmark cash for the program. 

About the author

David Brancaccio is the host of Marketplace Morning Report. Follow David on Twitter @DavidBrancaccio

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