The 5 most intriguing uses of 3D printers
If you’ve been watching the news, futuristic TV shows or sci-fi movies lately, you might think the world is about to be filled with all sorts of 3D printed items, from houses to artificial limbs and drones.
We’re not quite there yet. Widespread adoption for most of this stuff is still a few years away.
But we are at an inflection point where the sophistication and price of technology behind 3D printing and the variety of materials needed to support it are dramatically improving. As such, businesses, academics and the popular media are all showing historic levels of interest in 3D printing – a decades-old technology that’s only recently busted out of its niche role as a prototyping and design tool.
Indeed, we are seeing unprecedented levels of experimentation and investment in 3D Printing, providing a glimpse of how this technology might be used.
Here are 5 of the most intriguing 3D-printed applications we’ve seen come along lately:
1. 3D-Printed Houses
Researchers around the world are creating designs for 3D printed houses for both terrestrial and extra-terrestrial use (yes seriously). The thinking goes that building homes in this way can bring substantial savings on construction costs, offset potential labor shortages, speed the time it takes to build the units and allow for more architectural customization.
For instance, New Story
, a non-profit working to provide housing for the world’s impoverished, says it has worked with partner Icon
to build a 3D printer that can create a home for as little as $4,000 in 12 to 24 hours. San Francisco-based startup Apis Cor
, meantime, reportedly built a 400-square-foot house in a Russian town in just 24 hours for around $10,000. And there’s the research and architectural studio AI Space Factory
, which designed a NASA-backed, beehive-shaped 3D-printed house for the surface of Mars.
So much research and experimentation happening right now around 3D-printed homes that it’s difficult to imagine them not becoming as hot an investment area as self-driving cars. These printers are not capable of producing every element of a home yet – for example elements such as electricity and indoor plumbing still need to be manually installed. But with printers increasingly able to work with concrete
, they are proving effective for framing and exterior aspects of houses.
2. 3D-Printed Food – Yum!
Like something out of a Star Trek episode, Food Ink
began serving 3D-printed food with 3D-printed utensils at 3D-printed tables within a 3D-printed London restaurant a few years ago. Since then, the “pop-up restaurant” has put in a showing at various locations around the world.
It may sound odd, but the truth is we all eat food produced by machines. In this case, food ingredients (rather than plastic materials) are pureed, packed into 3D molds and then ‘printed’ with a Dutch-made 3D printing machine called ByFlow
. The molds are guided with the robotic arm of the printer to create dishes at a level of precision that most human chefs would struggle to match.
We may not see our McDonalds burgers or Taco Bell burritos coming out of a 3D printer anytime soon. But it might not be long before more “pop-up” 3D printed snack stands start showing up at malls, ballparks, fairs or anywhere else that people might be more open to quickly trying something new.
3. 3D-Printed Shoes
Sneaker companies like Nike, Reebok, Adidas and New Balance have been using 3D printers for years to quickly prototype new designs, Now this work appears to be picking up considerable steam, especially when it comes to creating more ergonomically friendly shoes for customers.
HP, for instance, has been working with partners such as Materialise
to build out a new platform called FitStation
that will deliver custom-fitted and individualized footwear through innovative 3D scanning, dynamic gait analysis and manufacturing technologies. FitStation is producing the world’s first 3D printed insoles made using 3D scanning and dynamic gait analysis, and Superfeet, a leader in innovative, over-the-counter insoles, is piloting the platform in select stores across the 4,000 retail locations where they have a presence. Steitz Secura, the specialist for safety shoes manufactured in Germany, will use FitStation to aid in its focus on comfort, preventative healthcare and safety.
4. 3D-Printed Drones
The market for drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles, is expected to grow by 20 percent to about $1.2 billion by 2028, according to a recent Market Research Future report
. Not surprisingly, the analyst firm notes 3D printing will be at the center of such activity as drones find increased utility in agriculture, cargo transportation, and passenger carriage and the military.
For example, the US Army and Marines
are reportedly working on a test project that lets soldiers in-the-field 3D-print specific drone parts using a tablet-based catalog. And an Italian company called Soleon
partnered with Materialise on a 3D-printed drone that drops environmentally friendly trichogramma eggs, a species of wasp, to eat destructive European corn worms.
Using 3D printing technology enables on-the-fly and rapid solutions to suddenly emerging situations while creating lighter-weight machines than would be possible with other technologies.
5. 3D-Printed Vaccines
We’ve been hearing about 3D-printed artificial limbs and organs for years, and tremendous progress continues to be made in each of those areas. But did you know that Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) engineers last year invented a 3D fabrication method
that would allow multiple doses of a drug or vaccine to be delivered over an extended period with just one injection?
Funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, it is hoped the project will improve immunization rates in developing nations where there is minimal to no access to quality healthcare (a Gates cause).
The 3D-fabrication method allows microparticles, resembling “tiny coffee cups,” to be filled with a drug or vaccine and then sealed with a lid. The particles are made of biocompatible, FDA-approved polymers that are designed to time-release, spilling out the contents of the cups.
There are many more 3D-printing innovations emerging every day. Too many to recount here, in fact. But it’s clear we’ve reached the point where technology advances, price drops and the widening availability of materials is driving unprecedented curiosity and experimentation.
After years of marginal progress, 3D printing is finally maturing out of its infancy into adolescence.