The recent popularity of 3D printing comes to no surprise when you have a look at the range of benefits this emerging technology already delivers. The cost-effective, high quality and unique features of the 3D printed objects along with the continuous development of additive manufacturing have already led to an explosion of 3D printing applications, and this is only the beginning.
Prototyping and 3D Product Modelling
Due to its bespoke nature, one of the obvious applications of 3D printing is in the area of product prototypes and scale models. If a model of a new luxury resort would have taken weeks, if not months, of laborious and intricate work, including endless measurements and hand crafting, this can now be achieved in a matter of days (if not hours) with the help of additive manufacturing. New shapes and structures, new combinations of materials and better quality of the end products are all contributing to a quicker adoption of this technology.
Although faster and sometimes even better, this process is not available to everybody due to its prohibiting costs, at least for now. Buying a 3D printer, the professional 3D modelling software (you can’t achieve the level of detail required with free and open-source software) and the continuous replacement of consumables (i.e. the ‘ink’) require a serious investment. Adding to these the printer maintenance and a new set of skills required for building the 3D digital models and we already need a few tens of thousands pounds. But this will surely not put off many architects and prototyping companies that are starting to realise that the benefits of 3D printing already surpass the drawbacks.
3D Bio-Printing and Human Augmentation
3D printing your personalised mug can be fun, but what would you say if you could print your own fully functional ear lost in a car accident years ago? This might sound like a futuristic technology from Sci-Fi movies, but it is already happening. 3D bio-printing, as it is better known, uses a combination of human cells, a hydrogel (a water-based gel used as scaffold) and a highly complex 3D printer that can ‘print’, at least in theory, any human organ.
Still in its infant stages, tissue engineering (as it is also known) is possible, although a fully functional organ has not been created yet. One of the reasons is the highly complicated 3D blood vessels networks that exist in every organ and keep it alive. Recreating these structures in a laboratory was impossible until recently. A new and innovative solution might solve this problem – it involves free-standing 3D filament networks on which human cells are then added to create the organ.
If 3D printing soft tissue organs may still be a few years ahead, ‘manufacturing’ hard tissues such as bones and teeth could soon become reality as they don’t require such a complex internal structure. Laboratory tests carried out on human bones and even on live rabbits and rats have very promising results.
It might not be long until organ transplants will become obsolete as we will be able to create every organ in our body with the help of a 3D printer. Imagine an amputee soldier being able to walk again, a young girl with genetic heart problems cured by a 3D printed version of her own heart or a cancerous organ being completely replaced by an identical cancer-free one.
Why stop here when we can make our organs even better? Genetic developments combined with tissue engineering techniques could lead to the creation of ‘super-organs’. Healthier, more resilient to infections organs that do their job twice as better as our ‘normal’ organs could augment our human abilities and prolong our lives. The human augmentation concept is not new, being featured in many Hollywood productions and Sci-Fi books, yet it may be closer to becoming reality than ever before.
3D Printed Medicines
Another application of 3D printing in the field of healthcare is used for creating customised medicine. Instead of combining different chemical compounds and catalysts in glassware to create a reaction, the new process makes the container the catalyst for the chemical reaction. The containers called “Reactionware” are extruded by a 3D printer. Using this method, researchers from Glasgow University managed to create additional compounds by simply altering the chemical composition of the container which, in this case, was made of a polymer gel.
Despite not producing any drugs that can be safely consumed by humans so far, the research done in this area has a great potential. We could soon have our own Reactionware apps, download our prescriptions directly to a 3D printer from home and ‘print’ our prescription drugs. This can be easily achieved with substances that are not dangerous and don’t require any tight dispensing control. Removing the middle man between the doctor and the patient could significantly reduce the costs of treatment; however drug companies might have something to say in this matter too.
Entertainment and Arts
Experiencing amazing visual effects in Hollywood blockbusters is no longer a bonus but a requirement for the success of these productions, although few know that some of the non-computer based graphics are made possible through 3D printing. From the costumes of Iron Man (Iron Man 2, 2010) and Batman (The Dark Knight Rises, 2012), to the faces of animated characters from The Pirates! Band of Misfits (2012), additive manufacturing has saved time and money while improving the end result. Due to the innovative way the above animation has been produced, real 3D figures have been created for each character and Aardman Animations have embraced 3D printing to make these characters speak. Only for the Pirate Captain, more than 257 mouths have been printed, each with a different expression that was used throughout the film.
Nevertheless, 3D printing is not restricted to big budget movies. 3D printing musical instruments is another domain that has taken off recently as a result of the remarkable accuracy with which valuable and rare instruments such as Stradivarius violins can be scanned and printed in a matter of hours. Creating new musical instruments, improving the acoustics of old ones with new shapes and materials or just satisfying eccentric tastes by offering ‘a Les Paul style guitar with an internal atom with spinning electrons’ are becoming more popular in the modern 3D printing-led musical community.
If the visual and audio pleasure is not enough for your tastes, titillate your senses with 3D printed sexual toys. The sex industry couldn’t miss the opportunity of creating fully personalised and innovative erotic toys. And because politics and sex often go together, one of the first to hit the market was a set called “Grand Old Party” which uses the graphical results from a poll amongst Republican voters turned into 3D graphics to create an intriguing collection of butt plugs. Whatever the size, shape and material you prefer you can now easily print the toy of your dreams.
3D Printing in Mass Manufacturing
Although 3D printing might not lead to an explosive manufacturing revolution where traditional methods become obsolete just yet, it is slowly finding its way into mass manufacturing and becoming the preferred method for producing complex parts of different objects.
Some of these applications are quite obvious such as the ones in the automobile industry and aeronautics and have been used with real success for some years now. One of the lesser known areas is the clothing and fashion industry where additive manufacturing is used in anything from hi-tech shoe soles and even complete shoes to bags and backpacks components and more recently 3D printed textile materials. Seamless, flexible and bespoke 3D printed textile structures in an infinite number of patterns can be transformed into unique garments tailored to the specific individual.
In this version of the future, going clothes shopping will no longer require endless and tiring trips to High Street shops where you can’t find the size or colour that you want. You will scan your bodies in 3D and upload this with your notes to your favourite online shops that will charge you for tweaking their latest designs to fit your body. This is then sent to your home 3D printer which, using recyclable materials, will print you ready-to-wear garment.
This post is part of the 3D Printing series.