The wild world of 3D printing
As you may have heard, 3D printers are going beyond the simple plastic creations we’re already familiar with. Way beyond. Scientists, engineers, doctors and creative makers are developing printers for advancements in health care, city planning and space travel. Oh, and now you can print sneakers and pizza, too. Here’s a roundup of the latest and greatest developments in the 3D printing world.
A variety of 3D printing techniques are being used to create more customized medical care and treatment plans for patients.
- The FDA has approved the first 3D-printed drug: Spiritam, which controls seizures brought on by epilepsy. The pill utilizes 3D printing to create a more porous structure that dissolves faster and allows patients to swallow high doses more quickly. It has opened the doors for additional 3D-printed drugs that can be packaged in precise doses that are custom-tailored to each patient.
- 3D models of patients’ organs are helping doctors plan out surgical procedures before they make an incision. In January an Irish surgical team was able to do a kidney transplant from a father to his 3-year-old daughter by creating 3D replicas of the father’s kidney and the daughter’s abdomen. More recently, a 3D-printed surgical model of an infant’s heart helped surgeons repair his life-threatening congenital heart defect.
- Arm prostheses made by 3D printers have been around for a little while, but prosthetic legs (which need to support the patient’s weight and allow them to move) are a little more complex. Fortunately, a team of Dutch orthopedic developers has built a leg prostheses that has helped one little girl walk unassisted, and there will be more to come.
- Actual human body parts may not be far off, either. A team of Swedish researchers managed a 3D “bioprinter” to create cartilage that can keep its shape; their goal is to create implants that can heal human noses, ears and knees (researchers say vital organs are going to take much longer to develop.)
Well, almost. But we’re getting close. Here are some feats of 3D structural engineering.
- A San Francisco-based startup called Emerging Objects used 3D-printed blocks of sand to create a structure nicknamed the “Quake Column.” Influenced by ancient Incan construction, its angular blocks are designed to shift and resettle during seismic activity. It’s still early, but the design could have large-scale influence on buildings in earthquake zones in the future.
- Architects are hoping that the cost-effectiveness and efficiency of 3D-printed housing will be able to help communities in need. Singapore has plans to build 3D-printed homes for its elderly population; the Brazilian startup Urban3D envisions housing designed to combat the country’s urban slum problems.
- On the other side of the world, Dubai announced plans for the first 3D-printed office building as part of their “Museum of the Future.” The building, built by a printer that’s six meters wide, will feature exclusively 3D-printed interior elements, too.
3D printing and sustainability
Can the environment benefit from 3D designs? You bet.
- Developing concrete that can be used in 3D printing is still a challenge, but a group of UCLA researchers are on the right track. They’ve developed a way to harness the carbon from power plant smokestacks and use it to create a new building material—CO2NCRETE—that 3D printers would fabricate.
- A sustainable energy source that looks like a tree? Makes perfect sense. The 20-foot-tall solar-powered “Smart Palms” in Dubai glow at night and let you recharge your laptop and mobile tech during the day. Made from concrete and 3D-printed fiber-reinforced plastic, they have the ability to charge up to 50 devices at a time.
- An Ontario startup hopes to use the power of 3D printing to bring clean energy to impoverished areas of the world. First up: Taking two giant 3D printers down to Nicaragua to build 50 “micro wind” turbines that will provide the area with a sustainable form of electricity.
Remember the food machine on The Jetsons that popped out dinner with the punch of a few buttons? It could become a reality sooner than you think.
- Why order a pizza when you can just print one? The Beehex 3D printer, which was showcased at South By Southwest in March, wants to make that happen.
- Looking for something a little fancier? A highly-developed printer called the Foodini is being used in high-end cuisine. Made by Barcelona-based Natural Machines, the Foodini is being used by elite chefs to create beautiful, intricate designs on their dishes. Its makers hope that the tech will have a mass-market appeal to casual cooks, as well.
Printing in space
That mission to Mars? It won’t be possible without a few 3D printers.
- Pizza’s not the only thing that the inventor of the Beehex, Anjan Contractor, is thinking about. He has also received a $125,000 grant from NASA to develop a 3D printer that could build customized, nutritious food for astronauts during long-term space travel.
- The International Space Station just got a new 3D printer, too. NASA recently sent a 3D printer and printing supplies developed by tech company Made in Space to the ISS to make life a little easier for astronauts. The long-term goal is for space travelers to be self-sufficient instead of waiting for supplies from earth. Need an antenna to fix your rocket ship radio? Just print one up.
Practical, schmactical. Ready for a little 3D-printed fun?
- Imagine being a kid and seeing a commercial for an awesome new toy, then printing it up in your living room. We’re not quite there yet—but we’re getting close. Mattel recently unveiled the Thing Maker, which will retail for $299.99 and work with an app for iOS and Android to let users make their own figurine designs and build them on the spot. Pley, the “Netflix of Toys” rental service, has plans to rent 3D toy printers to families as well. 
- Need running shoes that fit really, really well? Nike, Adidas, New Balance, and other footwear companies (as well as several startups) are all developing ways to create custom foot insoles for your new kicks.
- The fun isn’t limited to big companies either. Individual makers are gathering on sites like Thingiverse to showcase their DIY 3D-printed creations. Need a 3D-printed garden hose or a doorstop shaped like a cow? Now you know where to find it.
- Looking for hip wedding day décor that fits your budget? Agate place cards are popular but expensive. The Sprout allows you 3D-scan and print affordable faux versions—and at the last minute.
 The Guardian, Welcome to the complex world of 3D-printed drugs
 The Guardian, Child’s kidney transplant aided by 3D printing
 3ders.org, Orthin and Oceanz let children walk again with 3D printed medical grade leg prosthesis
 3ders.org, 3D bioprinted implants successfully tested in mice, may soon heal damaged noses, ears and knees
 3ders.org, Brazilian startup Urban3D sees 3D printed housing as solution for growing slum problems
 UCLA Newsroom, UCLA researchers turn carbon dioxide into sustainable concrete
 3D Print.com, RMRD Tech. & MatterHackers Partner to Provide 50 3D Printed Wind Turbines to Nicaragua
 3ders.org, NASA grant $125K to fund 3D food printer
 3ders.org, Print & Pley: 'Netflix for Toys' 3D printer rental lets families 3D print creative toys at home
 Fortune, Who’s Winning the 3D-Printed Shoe Race?
 Optional Dremel printer required for 3D printing and sold separately.
 A Practical Wedding, How To: DIY Faux Agate Wedding Decor