10 Examples of 3D Printing Transforming Our Reality

    Cate Lawrence

    3D printing has evolved over the last decade from a technology only accessible to big manufacturers to one that is achievable in the home office. It is becoming increasingly more affordable and offers a fast means of product creation. However, the ethics, legalities and moralities of 3D printing are becoming increasingly relevant as the speed of innovation surpasses regulation. Here are 10 forms of 3D printing that demonstrate that 3D printing will become as regular as other forms of manufacturing in the years to come.

    1. Bioprinting in Health Science

    3D printed ear

    Credit: Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine

    Researchers at North Carolina’s Wake Forest University have created a 3D bioprinter that can produce organs, tissues and bones that could theoretically be implanted into living humans. Researchers from Wake Forest University have created muscle, bone, and ear structures using plastic-like materials and living cells from humans, rabbits, rats, and mice. Amazingly, the living cells survived the 3D printing process. The researchers also successfully implanted their 3D-printed structures into rodents. If the technology works as well for humans as it does on rodents, doctors may be able to use a patient’s own cells to print them a new bone, muscle, or piece of cartilage one day.

    This was proceeded by a printer that was able to print artificial skin. Various cell types were placed in the wells of an actual ink cartridge and a printer was programmed to arrange the cells in a pre-determined order. Currently, researchers are using an adapted version of ink-jet printing technology to enable on-site “printing” of skin for soldiers with life-threatening burns. In this technology, “skin cells would be placed directly into a print cartridge, along with essential materials to support them, and would be printed directly on the soldier’s wound at the site of the wound.”

    The notion of a skull implant seems like something out of science fiction but last year doctors in China were able to save the life of a baby with hydrocephalus by 3D printing and implanting a titanium skull in three pieces. 3D printed titanium is strong, lightweight, and can be designed to perfectly fit the patient.

    2. Drug Printing

    The 3D printed drug, Spritam

    Credit: Aprecia Pharmaceuticals

    Recently US-based Aprecia Pharmaceuticals released the world’s first 3D printed drug, Spritam, a drug to treat seizures in epileptic patients. The printing comes from MIT produced technology using the company’s trademark ZipDose technology. Produced using technology by sandwiching a powdered form of the drug between liquid materials and bonding them at a microscopic level, the printed pills dissolve rapidly on contact with liquids.

    3D drug printing is a huge step towards personalised medicine. Alteration of a pill’s surface area through printing means that the size, dose, appearance and rate of delivery of a drug can be designed to suit an individual. In the future this could mean on-demand drug-printing facilities at clinics, hospitals and pharmacies, or even in patients’ homes.

    3. DIY Dentistry

    Not surprisingly, dentistry is another industry set to be transformed by 3D printing. Perhaps its biggest disruption of late is that of a 20-year-old college student printing his very own set of clear, orthodontic aligners — just like the ones that sell for thousands of dollars — all for less than US$60. While ostensibly a skill limited to those with access to materials and appropriate knowledge, it demonstrates how 3D printing will make traditional products cheaper.

    4. Robot Birds


    Credit: Materialise and Clear Flight Solutions

    Birds are beautiful creatures. However, they can endanger passenger safety by damaging an aircraft, spreading disease or ruining crops. In response, Dutch company Clear Flight Solutions has created high-tech “Robirds”.

    The insides of a Robird

    Credit: Materialise and Clear Flight Solutions

    As this article by Materialise explains,

    “These remote controlled robotic birds of prey, with the realistic appearance and weight of their living counterparts, serve as modern-day scarecrows. Robirds propel themselves by flapping their wings, with a flight performance comparable to real birds.”

    These Robirds can be used at airports, orchards, fields, and waste sites to scare away the real and much peskier birds. They have developed two types of Robirds: the falcon, which can be used to chase off birds up to 3kg, and the eagle to chase away any type of bird.

    5. Bicycles

    Bastion bicycle

    Credit: Bastion Cycles Pty Ltd

    The reality of a 3D bicycle coming to the retail market is limited due to the cost and size of the printer required and various construction challenges. Despite these initial hurdles, the lives of bike riders are being made easier by companies like Bastion Cycles with their 3D printed titanium parts and ETT Industries who are offering 3D printable bike parts that can be printed at home. This is great news for cycling enthusiasts who embrace the promise of new 3D printing technology and want to incorporate it into their own rides.

    6. Shoes

    New balance 3D printed shoes

    Credit: New Balance

    The notion of 3D printing of shoes has definite appeal. Who wouldn’t want a custom pair of shoes fitted to their exact measurements? But 3D printed shoes are still limited to either shoe parts or limited editions. New Balance has this week released Zante Generate Running Shoes, the first high-performance running shoe with a full-length 3D printed midsole. Last year, Adidas released a running shoe with a 3D printed midsole, and in March we saw Under Armour release shoes that featured a 3D printed midsole and a 3D upper design that helps provide a precision fit.

    Outside of the sports area, shoes seem to be limited to the realm of the highly artistic, such as those high fashion offerings by United Nude shoes. These offerings are printed in the store, right before the customers’ eyes. One other interesting concept is the offerings by Feetz, who 3D print shoes based on photos of your feet.

    United nude shoes

    Credit: United nude shoes

    7. Houses

    Contour crafting

    Credit: Contour Crafting

    While it is not possible or practicable to construct an entire house from 3D printing alone, contour crafting shows a way forward. Contour crafting (CC) is a layered fabrication technology developed by Dr. Behrokh Khoshnevis from the University of Southern California. This technology just might revolutionize the construction industry. Using the contour crafting process, “a single house or a colony of houses, each with possibly a different design, may be automatically constructed in a single run, embedded in each house all the conduits for electrical, plumbing and air-conditioning”.

    Contour crafting is being touted as a valuable application for emergency, low-income and commercial housing. NASA is even exploring possible applications of contour crafting for building structures on other planets.

    8. Drawing

    3Doodler artwork

    Credit: The 3Doodler

    Possibly the funnest example of 3D printing is provided by 3Doodler, a hand-held pen that allows you to “draw” your 3D printed object.

    The 3Doodler is often compared to a hot glue gun. You press a button to start, pause and stop the pen. When starting your drawing, you press the tip of the pen onto a flat surface and then draw the 3D object of your imagination in midair!

    9. Guns

    3D printed gun

    Credit: Defence Distributed

    Perhaps the most controversial example of 3D printing is a gun. In 2013, the world’s first 3D printed gun was successfully fired in the US. Invented by Defense Distributed, the gun was almost entirely made up of 3D printed parts in ABS plastic — the firing pin was the only metal (and non-plastic) component. The 3D printed gun’s plans were controversially released for all to access online and were subsequently downloaded 100,000 times in two days. The US government has worked hard to prevent the download and spread of these plans, however, the online release of such material is hard to undo.

    10. Changing Lives Through the Building of Prosthetics

    3D printed prosthetics are already making an incredible difference to people in need around the world. One example of this is the work of Refugee Open Ware (ROW). They are “a global humanitarian innovation consortium, whose mission is to employ​ ​advance​​d​ ​technology to improve human rights fulfillment of both refugees and host communities in conflic​t-affected areas​” (source). ROW provides training to displaced persons and host communities while building solutions to the problems facing victims of conflict. They currently have a fabrication laboratory in Jordan which trains locals to manufacture and create 3D printed prosthetics.