3D Printing: The Shape of Things to Come

For years, retailers have been using 3D printing (3DP) to create sculptures, jewelry, and smartphone covers for consumers on marketplaces like Shapeways. Now, consumers can make their own artifacts and personalized works of stereolithographic art with reasonably-priced printers like the Makerbot, now being sold at Home Depot stores.

With 3DP, the garage hobbyist is rapidly becoming a manufacturing engineer— the 3DP revolution is upon us. 1984 saw the first 3D printer create physical objects from digital information. After years of developing rapid design prototyping techniques, scientists came up with the first working animal organ in the early 2000s, and a few years later fabricators began to print in multiple materials at once.

Urbee, the 3D printed car. 

Urbee, the 3D printed car. 

Medical technologies have since been greatly advanced with the creation of complicated prosthetics in 2008 and the innovation of bioprinting tissues the following year. 2011 brought 3DP cars, then implanted 3DP prosthetics (a titanium jaw), and now a relatively affordable 3DP machine is available to the public.

Printing a Better World

With the 3DP industry entering its third decade, consumers are becoming producers of simpler printable objects. In addition, remarkably complex 3DP applications abound in the medical/biotech industries and academia. While some printable body parts are becoming more common (replacement knees, hips, and skin grafts), the new frontier in 3D bioprinting involves constructing a working human heart. Researchers are building an organ using technology that reprograms stem cells to become heart cells that beat. The heart will be made of various materials that make up the muscles, fat, blood vessels, and electrically-charged conducting system, and will be printed layer by layer out of a patient’s own donor cells.

Perhaps closer to being realized is a 3D printed silicon pacemaker that fits around the heart like a glove and can be personalized to solve the specific problems of a particular person’s organ. Designer medical devices like this are being modeled and printed using high-resolution imaging and a web of electrodes that stimulate the heart based on a patient’s needs.

This photo shows the new cardiac device― a thin, elastic membrane― fitted over a rabbit's heart. The membrane is imprinted with a network of electrodes that can monitor cardiac function and deliver an electrical impulse to correct an erratic heartbeat. (Image: University of Illinois and Washington University)

This photo shows the new cardiac device― a thin, elastic membrane― fitted over a rabbit's heart. The membrane is imprinted with a network of electrodes that can monitor cardiac function and deliver an electrical impulse to correct an erratic heartbeat. (Image: University of Illinois and Washington University)

3DP has revolutionized the field of prosthetics, and in particular the field of limb replacement, where one company called Robohand is making low-cost, custom-fitted mechanical limbs for individuals around the world. The open source 3DP design cooperative Thingiverse offers a free downloadable design to print a $50 printable limb which is more functional than a more traditional myoelectric prosthetic costing $42K. In a design workshop for kids, Kidmob, a Bay Area design nonprofit, recently helped children with upper limb differences design and build their own 3D printed prosthetics.

 Aidan's New Arm, via Superhero Cyborgs

 Aidan's New Arm, via Superhero Cyborgs

Objects 3D printed  have also been used in education to help the blind to “see” shapes through tactile learning. As part of a tactile learning experience, blind children in Japan were given 3DP models to explore objects they normally could not touch, such as a snowflake. A library in Lithuania recently held an exhibition of 3DP models of well-known people and buildings to help the visually impaired explore world cultures and narrow the gap between their unsighted world and the world around them.

3D Printed Model of Reims Cathedral (Image: 3D Print)

3D Printed Model of Reims Cathedral (Image: 3D Print)

Everyday 3DP for You and Me

The average consumer can now purchase 3DP products at various marketplaces that have grown up with the industry. Shapeways is one of the largest marketplaces for designing, selling, and purchasing 3DP products such as miniature figurines, jewelry, and gadgets. Other sites allow you to design objects that are printed for you (i.materialise). Open source design can be found on the digital database site Thingiverse where user-created design files are shared in conjunction with the Makerbot companion site.

3D printed edibles: cake topper, sugar cubes, and ice cube. (Images: 3DSystems and TBWAHakuhodo for Suntory Whisky) 

3D printed edibles: cake topper, sugar cubes, and ice cube. (Images: 3DSystems and TBWAHakuhodo for Suntory Whisky

Printed food may not sound extremely appetizing but the design possibilities are interesting and some current products are ingenious. Applications for 3DP in party and wedding planning for made-to-order pastries, cakes, and favors are hardly surprising. Considering the artistic resourcefulness inherent in the custom catering industry 3DP is an obvious choice for enterprising suppliers, particularly in the field of architectural confectionery. Can I get that in chocolate?

At SXSW Eco, a team shows off a 3-D printer that makes a pizza.