Printing Innovation

Printing Innovation

This is not the world science fiction has promised us — a world of jet packs and space tourism for the masses are still more fantasy than fact. But the future is coming, and 3D printing will be a part of it. Though still decades, if not more, from the replicators on Star Trek, these increasingly affordable desktop devices can create — usually in plastic, but in other materials as well — intricate designs. Acolytes of the technology foresee a world where 3D printers are a household necessity, like a microwave. The battery cover of your remote control broke the way it always does? Just search an online database for the part and print a new one.

Or you could make a new product of your own. The proliferation of 3D printing has the potential to democratize the process of design, production, and manufacture of small commercial goods. And as 3D printers become more ubiquitous, this will present new challenges. When people can make just about anything in their homes, how will governments regulate the things they create? Here are some of the items that are already being made on desktops and in garage hobby shops, and some things that might be printable soon.


Ancient Art

Sure, you can buy a model of Rodin’s The Thinker in some catalogs, or a figurine of Michelangelo’s David at any souvenir shop in Florence, but aside from the most famous works, art replicas are hard to come by and even then can be expensive. That has the potential to change with 3D printing. With digital cameras and some specialized software, designers can map and catalog sculptures with extreme precision and recreate them on demand. While 3D printers are still a long ways off from perpetrating the next big forged art fraud, there are some immediate applications for printed artwork. In countries that lack large-scale manufacturing infrastructure, affordable table-top 3D printers could provide a small-scale alternative. Consider columist Thomas Friedman’s observation of the “Made in China” stickers on Egyptian souvenirs — with 3D printers, those same King Tut ashtrays could be produced locally at low cost.


Vehicles of the Future

NASA has caught a glimpse of the future of 3D printing, and it likes what it sees. Its next orbital booster, the Space Launch System (SLS), will use a 3D printing technique called selective laser melting to make rocket components. “Since we’re not welding parts together,” says Andy Hardin, the integration hardware lead for the SLS, “the parts are structurally stronger and more reliable, which creates an overall safer vehicle.” And without the infrastructure necessary for large-scale production, it saves money, too. The SLS is still years from completion, though. Maybe a bit more grounded in reality is the Areion, a zippy electric racecar with a 3D printed body.

No one is 3D printing a Saturn V or Tesla Roadster in their garage yet, but 3D printed vehicles are out there now. Thingiverse, a database of downloadable plans for home 3D printers, has plans for a functioning air engine, model planes, and quadcopters on their site.

NASA/MSFC/Andy Hardin


It was probably inevitable that someone would 3D print a gun. The plastic used in most 3D printers isn’t the best for guns, but already there have been some instances of people printing out parts, for example the plastic casing for a .22-caliber pistol or a rifle modeled on the AR-15, with store-bought parts inside. As more advanced 3D printers become more affordable, people almost certainly will start fabricating entire firearms at home. There’s even a movement to promote these “wiki weapons” — take for example Defense Distributed, a website that aspires to “become the web’s printable gun wiki redoubt,” supplying free 3D-printable gun designs. The legal response to open-source, homemade firearms has been equally inevitable; the designs have prompted debates about whether the homemade plans constitute a gun if the receiver isn’t being homemade. Under current law, it seems the homemade firearms are legal for personal use in the United States, but hobbyists will run into trouble if they try to sell one of their wiki weapons.

HaveBlue/Michael Guslick


One of the distinct advantages of 3D printing is the ability to fabricate custom-fitted designs without going through the laborious process of making molds or machining parts. Hospitals are using 3D printers to make custom prosthetics. To assist children with muscular disorders, a children’s hospital in Delaware developed a wearable exoskeleton printed to fit each child on a Stratasys 3D printer (incidentally, the same brand of printer used to make the .22 pistol). Three-d printing is also proving to be invaluable for prosthetics that replace body parts, not just augment them. In June 2011, doctors in Belgium replaced a woman’s infected lower jaw with a printed replica made of fused titanium powder with a bioceramic coating, and 3D-printed noses might be coming soon. (Similarly, but on a smaller scale, this bald eagle got a replacement beak after being shot by poachers.) At least one company has also started 3D-printing artistic limb-shaped casings (called fairings) for prosthetics, allowing amputees to express themselves through their prosthetic limbs. In time, 3D printing could ease access to custom-fitted prosthetics for people around the world.

Bespoke Innovations


After the 3D printer, what comes next? Why not take the basic design of the 3D printer and substitute pharmaceuticals for the powdered plastics that 3D printers inject and fuse to build shapes, and instead build custom drugs? That’s the idea Lee Cronin, a chemistry professor at Glasgow University, has used to build the “chemputer,” the latest step in his quest for a “universal chemistry set.” Using a modified commercial 3D printer, Cronin has created a prototype that uses chemical reactions to create a wide range of substances used in drugs, all within a controlled environment. The device has huge potential for both research and production. In the closed environment of the chemputer, researchers could quickly and easily run tests on isolated problems — a cancer cell maybe, or resilient bacteria. And because it takes only a few basic chemical inputs (“inks,” Cronin calls them) to create, though chemical reactions, the more complex substances in most drugs, in time the chemputer could become a small, affordable pharmacy with formulas for prescriptions available for download at scalable doses. Such a device could ease access to pharmaceuticals in rural regions where drugs are less accessible and help cut down on counterfeit drugs that dominate some developing markets, but would also require a paradigm shift in the way pharmaceutical companies approach production and distribution. The chemputer is a long way from mass production, though, and how it works in practice could be very different than Cronin’s proposals. Theoretically, these chemputers could be used just as easily as low-cost, miniature narcotics labs.



Three-d printers fuse powdered plastics or metals to print their designs, and the chemputer uses some basic chemicals. Modern Meadow, a tech-startup focused on bioprinting — yes, that’s a thing now — uses lab-grown cells as its ink. While maybe one day their bioprinting technology could lead to custom 3D-printed hearts and livers, in the near-term, they’re looking at revolutionizing the way we eat. Fabricating meat in a laboratory is comparatively simple; as the company pointed out in a grant application, “meat is a post mortem tissue, the vascularization of the final product is less critical than in medical applications.” In other words, scientists won’t need to worry about getting arteries and nerves to work, they just need to get the texture right. The plan now is to 3D-print sheets of pig cells and then, from this base, grow muscles through electric stimulation. The result should look and taste like pork, but without the pig. The result could open new sources of protein to ethical vegetarians, allow a greener alternative to farmed produce, and provide a new source of meat production in an era when population growth is straining the world’s resources. Rabbis and imams might want to start thinking: Is lab-grown pork kosher or halal?

Creative Tools/Flickr

Your Face

No, really! Though the example is more experiment than application at this point, in time 3D-printed faces could be a feature in reconstructive surgeries. This person who printed his face works in a medical-applications lab and performed the scan with a CAT scan machine. Three-d printed faces might also be a foundation for futuristic robots, like the androids of Isaac Asimov novels, and might ultimately help bridge the “uncanny valley” between robots and humans that makes androids just a bit creepy.