I thought I had a reasonably good grasp on 3-D printing and the effects it may have on healthcare design.

I knew about the possibilities today (printing prosthetics) and in the more distant future (printing organs and bone). I knew that this might likely call for yet another reevaluation of healthcare spaces, especially the OR—perhaps making room for today’s hybrid capabilities as well as tomorrow’s 3-D printing so that newly printed organs might be immediately and seamlessly transplanted to a recipient.

Christina Grimes of Ballinger wrote a great blog for us on the topic and highlights some of the environmental ramifications for this technology in healthcare in “Designing for Medicine’s Next Frontier.”

But then Dima Elissa, co-founder of medical 3-D printing company VisMed-3D (Chicago), took the stage this past weekend at the American College of Healthcare Architects Summer Leadership Summit in Chicago and opened up a whole new world of possibility.

Elissa showed a short video of something I didn’t know was possible: a home in China being constructed using 3-D printing. Next, details on a 3-D printed museum in Dubai, and then a bridge in Amsterdam.

As it turns out, the future might not just hold opportunity to accommodate 3-D printing within our healthcare environments; it might be used to build them.

“To me, it’s daunting and bedazzling,” Elissa said of the technology. And there’s plenty of reason for it. The opportunities appear to be endless, but that doesn’t come without complication. For her, it’s a lack of standards.

But despite that significant challenge, she also advised attendees that 3-D printing isn’t going anywhere. So what should we be thinking about if that’s true? She offered some ideas.

For starters, she said, think about value. If you print a body part, what does it solve? Does it enhance productivity, improve a patient’s quality of life, or lower cost?

She used the example of a knee, for which only a handful of replacements are available despite the likelihood that all of our knees are fairly unique. But what if a customized joint could be modeled after a patient’s own knee and printed? It’s more likely to fit and subsequently will reduce healing time and more quickly improve mobility. Therein lies the value.

So what value, be it efficiency or cost savings, might be brought to the table by using 3-D printing to build? And what standards will be necessary to make it work?

Elissa described a world where we might someday print everything from batteries to electronics to clothing (think of a suit printed to already be custom tailored to you). “It’s coming fast. If a picture is worth a thousand words, a personalized, customized one is worth a thousand to the third power,” she said.

How might this technology be used to customize healthcare spaces for providers? And what does that mean for the value of architecture in general? I think Elissa is right: It’s daunting and bedazzling.