3-D Printers Give Us a New Way to Think

Ed Smith does some fiendishly difficult surgeries. A pediatric neurosurgeon at Boston Children’s Hospital, he often removes tumors and blood vessels that have grown in gnarled, tangled shapes. “It’s really complicated, defusing-a-bomb-type surgery,” he says.

So these days, Smith prepares for his work by using an unusual tool: a 3-D printer. Days in advance, hospital techs use standard imaging to print a high-resolution copy of the child’s brain, tumor and all. Smith will examine it for hours, slowly developing a nuanced, tactile feel for the challenge. “I can hold the problem in my hand,” Smith says. “I can rehearse the surgery as many times as I want.” During the operation, Smith keeps the printed brain next to him for reference. As a visualization tool, it’s so powerful that it has reduced the length of his surgeries by an average of 12 percent.

Smith’s work is cool—and it should also make you look at 3-D printers in a new way. Most of the time, they’re pitched as tiny artisanal factories, useful for cranking out one-off products and niche objects: a desktop-sized industrial revolution. But what if it’s more? What if the 3-D printers are going to be equally useful—or even more so—as thinking tools?

I’ve come to believe that their intellectual impact is going to be like that of the inkjet printer. We (correctly) do not regard printers as replacements for industrial presses. Few people print a whole newspaper or book. No, we use printers as cognitive aids. We print documents so we can array them on our desks, ponder them, and show them to other people.

That’s exactly how Smith uses his 3-D printer. He doesn’t print the brain so he can have a product. He prints the way you’d print an email—as a document, yes, but more as a way to understand data and solve problems.

Doctors have long used MRIs and CT scans to help visualize tumors, of course. But when the visualization is physical, it has a haptic impact that screens do not. You learn new things. That’s why architects build scale models of their buildings: Only by peering around a structure do you “get” what’s going on. “You see these spatial relations and depth of field that aren’t possible onscreen,” Smith says.

It works for more than brains. Last winter, NASA astronomers printed a model of a binary-star system to help them visualize its complex solar winds, and “we discovered a number of things we hadn’t fully appreciated,” says Thomas Madura, a NASA visiting scientist. 3-D prints are also terrific for accessibility, giving the blind a new way to grasp astronomy. (Math too: An enterprising San Diego father printed fractions so his blind daughter could learn them.)

To really unlock the power of 3-D printers, though, the tech will have to improve. If we’re going to use physical “documents” the way we use paper ones—glancing at them for an hour, or perhaps only a moment, then tossing them aside—we’ll need printing material to be recyclable, even biodegradable. Imagine the 3-D printing equivalent of a Post-it note! What’s more, we need our intellectual culture to evolve. Right now, we don’t value or teach spatial reasoning enough; “literacy” generally only means writing and reading.

It doesn’t have to. I can envision all sorts of delightful and curious uses for 3-D data. Courts could print forensic evidence that juries could handle. You could render a sales report not as a chart but as a manipulable sculpture. 3-D printers aren’t just factories for products—they’re factories for thought.

Email clive@clivethompson.net.