China is 3D printing a dam. The Yangqu hydropower plant, a 560-foot-tall dam on the Tibetan plateau, will be completed within two years, officials say. Built completely by robots, this will be the world's largest-ever 3D printing project. Like much of what China does, it goes big or stays home, and once again, the Middle Kingdom is wowing the world by embarking on another record-breaking 'Great Wall' mission. But just the fact that 3D printing technology has advanced far enough to print a structure as large as a 590-foot-tall dam is in itself astonishing. The only possibly concerning element of the Chinese massive printing project is the complete exclusion of human workers. Should the Chinese be successful in relying on 100% robotic construction, some will see it as a harbinger of things to come for many workers – even in what is traditionally thought of as a human labor-intensive industry such as construction. That said, setting aside concerns about robots and jobs, the answer to "How will 3D printing change the future?" increasingly seems to be: in every single possible way imaginable.

redefinemeat redefinemeat

Away from large-scale construction in Tibet, as well as plans by NASA contractors to 3D print habitats for astronauts on the moon or Mars, more down-to-earth applications are also picking up steam. And from large to small – all are being made possible due to the basic 'layer-by-layer' concept of 3D printing, now increasingly being augmented with AI technology. Already on sale is 3D-printed meat. Celebrity chefs and barbecue experts are aware that this meat is 100% plant-based, and that it was created with a 3D AI-guided printer. But their verdict is simply: this is "delicious meat." It's just one more exciting development brought to us courtesy of 3D printing, one that could be a major weapon in the fight against global warming and human hunger. As any environmental organization will happily provide statistics to demonstrate, the meat industry is hugely polluting and a large cause of human-made climate change. At the same time, the planet could be home to perhaps 10 billion within a couple of decades. We need to find a solution to seemingly contradictory needs: more meat for more people, and less (or no meat) to stop the detrimental effects of the meat industry. 3D printed layered meat – in which each layer has a different texture and flavor – simulating animal protein to a degree that even the above-noted barbecue experts are giving it a thumbs up, is a major gamechanger.

Other more day-to-day applications that will benefit humanity are also coming online fast, and many of these coalesce around the ability of 3D printing to customize products. Take teeth, for example, millions of people around the world go about their daily lives with missing teeth due to the price and difficulty of producing artificial ones. Even in places with a socialized medical system and a strong background in high technology such as the self-ruled island of Taiwan, a new tooth can cost an average of roughly US$2,000. These kinds of costs are unbearable for many Taiwanese, who are relatively affluent compared to people in many other Asian locales. But fast forward a few years and even those needing a new tooth in poorer nations could see the process reduced to a mouth scan, followed by a dentist fitting in a tooth made by a 3D printer using composite materials that are stronger than what's available today – but much cheaper – and almost never requiring revisions or refitting. Plus, the process might take hours rather than days.

Moving even further into the future we will begin to read and hear much, much more about bioprinting. Currently, scientists have already managed to 3D print liver cells that functioned for more than 40 days. Additionally, sheets of cardiac tissue and stem cells that can reproduce various types of human tissue have also been printed, and prototypes for bioprinting cartilage have been created. All this suggests that we are probably less than a decade away from being able to print a human heart, or the cartilage of a nose, or well... virtually any part of a human. Imagine the millions that could be saved by eliminating the need for organ donors as bioprinting becomes a reality. The artificial tissue that's being developed is also tailored to match a patient's biological makeup, which significantly reduces the possibility of rejection. To use the word 'milestone' seems like a serious understatement.

Those currently in their 'middle years' will likely live to see a world completely transformed by 3D printing. And such people will be the final generation with one foot in the analog world; people who remember the cassette tape but will also be receiving 3D printed organs. Those born after the year 2000 are headed for a future that's almost too 'sci-fi' for older generations to contemplate. When human cells can be combined with graphene (a substance 100 times stronger than steel), and printed into whatever may be required, our imagination fails us in predictions of what could be. We are on the cusp of changes as profound as the industrial revolution or the rise of the computer, and it's all thanks to technology that – just a couple of decades ago – seemed destined to be a hobby for people who wanted to extrude layers of plastic to produce some half-melted keychain or other insignificant items. Instead, we now know that this tech will literally print the future.