14 3D Printing Applications & Examples
A business student walks into a 3D printing lab.
It sounds like the setup to a joke. But as the director of MakerLab, a 3D printing lab in the Gies Business School at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Dr. Vishal Sachdev actually sees that happen all the time.
“The first question that people have is, What do I do with [the printers]?” he told Built In. “Most people are not really used to making things. They’re used to buying things.”
To show newbies the technology’s possibilities, Sachdev and his team start with “everyday objects” like keychains and paperclips.
His first personal 3D-printing project, Sachdev vaguely remembers, was a comb.
That was back in 2012. Like many people at the time, Sachdev had heard of 3D printing — it’s been billed as the next big thing for almost a decade — but hadn’t actually done much of it himself. He was a business professor, and 3D printing typically was considered the province of engineers. It offers a new layer-by-layer method for creating everything from space habitats to jewelry. Ultimately, though, it’s a manufacturing technique, not a business proposition. Right?
Not according to Sachdev’s colleague, Dr. Aric Rindfleisch. He convinced Sachdev that 3D printing actually had major business implications, too. It could shift entire business models, transform supply chains and alter consumer behavior. If people could print physical objects from their desktops, maybe they would start relating to them differently.
Sachdev was intrigued. He printed his comb. Then, in 2013, he and Rindfleisch opened MakerLab, the first (and only) 3D printing lab based in a business school. Today, the self-sustaining lab has a fleet of 20 3D printers that print with polylactic acid, or PLA filament — a type of plastic.
Though 3D printing presents some scalability issues — it’s not as fast as comparable methods, especially for large batches — it has impacted a variety of fields. With a little help from Sachdev, we rounded up a few of the ways it’s being used in industries from fashion to aeronautics.
3D printers don’t have a great bedside manner — they look more like futuristic bread boxes than nurses. Still, they can indirectly care for sick and disabled people, printing out artifacts ranging from assistive devices to near-functional human hearts. (Professionals use the realistic hearts for toxicity screening.) In other words, 3D printing gives doctors and nurses a new array of tools, which range from simple to sci-fi.
Thera-Solutions: A Stronger Grip
How it uses 3D printing: The functionalhand, Thera-Solutions’ flagship product, isn’t actually hand-shaped. It’s more like a hand enhancement; the company’s founders — an occupational therapist and a physical therapist — designed it for people who struggle with finger mobility. The simple plastic-and-cord device makes grasping easier. Users simply lasso “a spoon or a toothbrush, or a pen,” Dr. Sachdev explained, and tighten the loop against the 3D-printed plastic handle.
He would know: Thera-Solutions made the first run of 150 functionalhand handles at MakerLab. “It’s been really great to work on a project which can positively impact someone’s quality of life,” said Dr. Sachdev.
Though anyone can use it, the tool was designed with kids in mind. In other words, it’s cheap and durable. It’s also multifaceted, capable of both horizontal and vertical holds available. To date, its reliable grip has helped users hold water bottles, stir cake mix and even do precision tasks like painting their nails.
BioLife4D: Disrupting Organ Donations
How it uses 3D printing: Getting an organ transplant is a terrifying ordeal, often involving a long waitlist and an uncertain future. However, BioLife4D aims to change that by 3D-printing functional human hearts, a process called “bioprinting.” So far, using a gelatin-like ink made from human stem cells, the team has successfully printed a miniature heart with a functional structure: four core chambers, ventricles, etc. The team hopes to scale up its hearts from here. The ultimate aim, according to Futurism, is “to print full-scale human hearts that can be transplanted into human patients, like changing out a watch battery.”
Materialise: Personalized Hip and Shoulder Implants
Location: Leuven, Belgium
How it uses 3D printing: Based in the EU, this company runs a 3D printing factory with eight printer models capable of working with more than 30 materials — which means it can print basically everything. However, some of its most noteworthy creations are custom shoulder and hip implants. The process works like this: Staff engineers review a patient’s CT scans, and craft a design for a titanium implant tailored to that patient’s physiology. To date, Materialise implants have helped patients recover from ailments including arthritis and gunshot wounds.
Aeronautics and Space Travel
Usually, mass-producing a complex machine means manufacturing a million different parts. 3D-printing changes that, though. As early 3D-printing innovator Avi Reichenstal said in his Ted Talk, “The printer doesn’t care whether it makes the most rudimentary or most complex shape.” In other words, the technology makes intricate designs simple to produce.
This has been a boon to the aeronautics industry. These days, the process of manufacturing jet and rocket engines often involves 3D printed parts.
GE Aviation: Newly Streamlined Manufacturing
Location: Atlanta, Ga.
How it uses 3D printing: GE Aviation’s LEAP engine, used in Boeing and Airbus aircraft, requires 19 metal jet fuel nozzles. Once upon a time, each nozzle was assembled from 20 different pieces, each forged in its own way. 3D-printing streamlined the process — now, nozzles can be printed all in one piece, and require no assembly.
The technology essentially replaced traditional fabrication when it came to the nozzles, Sachdev explained. To date, GE has printed more than 30,000 nozzles in the new way, and the team is so all-in on 3D printing, they acquired the company that printed the earliest ones. It’s now at work on other projects that will integrate 3D printing even more fully into GE’s manufacturing processes.
SpaceX: A Fully 3D-Printed Engine
Location: Hawthorne, Calif.
How it uses 3D printing: SpaceX’s guiding vision — making commercial space travel as accessible as an Earthbound flight — would make no sense without 3D printing. SpaceX has long experimented with the manufacturing technique, which could radically reduce the cost of rocket engines. First, the company made Falcon, a rocket whose engine had a 3D-printed valve. Then came the SuperDraco, whose engine was completely 3D printed.
So far, SpaceX has argued that 3D-printing improves durability as it cuts cost. During a recent test, however, the SuperDraco engine appeared to explode — which has prompted some questions about 3D-printed parts. It’s possible that under the extreme duress of space travel, Kerry Stevenson writes, each of the many layers in a 3D-printed metal object functions as a “seam,” vulnerable to tearing. It’s still unclear, but SpaceX will almost certainly investigate further before sending up manned missions.
NASA: Lightweight Spaceship Parts
Location: Washington, D.C..
How it uses 3D printing: The unmanned Orion capsule, which NASA is developing for a moon mission, will have a newly lightweight engine thanks to 100 3D-printed parts. Each will be printed from a special plastic filament, engineered with space travel in mind. The ultra-durable material is cheaper and lighter than metal, which makes the capsule more aerodynamic.
The plastic is also less vulnerable to static. “In space… materials will build up a charge,” Scott Sevcik told Reuters. (Sevcik is Vice President of Manufacturing Solutions at Stratasys, one of the firms that engineered the plastic in question.) “If that was to shock the electronics on a spacecraft, there could be significant damage.”
Most 3D printers won’t print just anything — the inner workings were designed to print a particular material, like plastic or metal. Or molten chocolate. Yes, some 3D printers can print food — though typically only if it has a paste-like texture. In fact, an ultra-exclusive pop-up restaurant, Food Ink, serves only 3D-printed dishes: think desserts arranged in perfect spirals and lobster-shaped seafood dishes.
3D printed food isn’t just for elite dining experiences, either. The technology can shape home cooking too, adding new designs and pasta possibilities into the mix.
Natural Machines: A Robotic Sous Chef
Location: Barcelona, Catalonia, Spain
How it uses 3D printing: This company doesn’t make a desktop 3D printer so much as a countertop one. The Foodini, its toaster-oven-sized food printer, allows for custom portion sizes, designs and plating. Home chefs simply program its touch-screen interface, preloaded with suggested shapes, and slot fresh ingredients into the printer’s five capsules. It then produces edible creations like guacamole, geometric cookies — even a butter sculpture in the shape of a human head.
Hershey’s: Printed Kisses
Location: Hershey, Penn.
How it uses 3D printing: Hershey’s unveiled a 3D printer for chocolate in 2014: the CocoJet, created in collaboration with 3D Systems. (This company is legit — the CTO, Chuck Hull, invented 3D printing.) If it sounds pretty easy to turn a plastic printer into a chocolate printer, think again. The CocoJet required painstaking customization.
“Chocolate has much different melting and cooling properties than something like plastic,” Jeff Mundt, Hershey’s Marketing Manager of Tech, told TechCrunch.
The finished machine could print photos onto chocolate bars, or construct intricately latticed mega-kisses. But since the latter took a while (about 90 minutes), Hershey’s restricted the printer to 2D use during its stint at Chocolate World, Hershey’s Pennsylvania theme park.
Barilla: Pasta Shaped like the Moon
Location: Parma, Emilia-Romagna, Italy
How it uses 3D printing: In the pasta world, shape is everything. It affects a dish’s mouthfeel, the way it absorbs sauce, and its look on a plate. That’s why Barilla hosts an annual contest for the best 3D pasta design. One past winner: Lune, a spherical, crater-pocked design inspired by the moon.
It takes Barilla’s fridge-sized 3D printer between two and three minutes to print nine pieces of pasta from semolina dough, which means the printing process doesn’t run much faster than human artisans. Still, Barilla is still deeply invested in its possibilities. In fact, they recently created a spinoff company, BluRhapsody, that specializes in custom 3D-printed pasta.
Though 3D printers are versatile, they’re not omnipotent. Though they excel at printing plastic-like materials, printing anything that drapes or feel good to touch remains prohibitively expensive. That makes cloth a no-go, for now.
Still, cloth is far from the only thing we wear. Plasticky accessories, from sunglasses to footwear, blend right into a modern wardrobe. Some of these are 3D printed — though not Jelly sandals, surprisingly enough. (They’re plastic, but made with injection molding.)
Monoqool: Glasses Tailored to Your Face
Location: Fredensborg, Denmark
How it uses 3D printing: This Danish company 3D-prints glasses with a simple, minimalist aesthetic. The designs are so streamlined, they don’t even require screws — the hooked metal arms simply latch into the glasses’ lightweight rims, which are printed from polyamide powder. But the simplicity of the final look belies the work that happens behind the scenes. Technicians customize each Monoqool design to the client’s face shape, style and fit preferences.
New Balance: Sneakers Like Trampolines
How it uses 3D printing: New Balance first turned turned to 3D printing company Formlabs for an ambitious, slightly nutty project: the reinvention of foam. Specifically, the company wanted to reimagine the foam it used for sneaker midsoles, the layer of the shoe that absorbs the shock of impact. New Balance sought a springier, more durable material.
Formlabs delivered an entirely new substance: Rebound Resin, a liquid that can be printed in intricate latticework and hardened under a UV light. New Balance now uses this substance, as opposed to foam, in its Triple Cell sneakers, which offer different levels of support across the foot.
“It feels more like a resilient trampoline than foam.” Katherine Petrecca, general manager of New Balance’s Innovation Design Studio, told Wired.
Studio XO: Lady Gaga Garb
Location: London, England/U.K.
How it uses 3D printing: Lady Gaga’s most famous outfit was probably her dress made of raw beef, but that was far from her only fashion experiment. In 2013, she hit the red carpet in two different 3D-printed garments — or pieces of “body architecture” — from Studio XO, a high-tech British fashion house. One Gaga outfit, the white “Anemone,” had a bubble-like silhouette; the black Parametric Sculpture Dress, meanwhile, had a more sinuous, winding shape and featured a headpiece-slash-eyepatch made of lightweight plastic. For the black piece, the design team drew inspiration from sculptor Jeff Koons’ work, plus their own flights of fancy.
“Things that have only been a figment of our imagination, we can now see in CAD [and] 3D print,” Studio XO co-founder Nancy Tilbury told VICE.
A hundred years from now, the phrase “printing a house” might have replaced “building a house” in common parlance. Already, a handful of companies have developed the technology and materials to 3D-print custom cement housing in as little as 24 hours. It’s cheap, too — sometimes as little as $10,000.
That’s just one of the ways 3D printing has shaken the foundations of the construction industry. Some institutions are experimenting with adobe printing, or using 3D-printed models to illustrate new architectural visions.
Rael San Fratello: Housing Made from Free Materials
Location: Oakland, Calif.
How it uses 3D printing: At this architecture studio, led by husband-and-wife duo Ronald Rael and Virginia San Fratello, concrete is just one of the materials they’ve 3D printed homes from. They’ve also experimented with a variety of materials less creative minds might consider “garbage.”
“We’ve… attempted using rubber from recycled tires, glass from broken windshields, and salt from the San Francisco Bay,” they told Architect Magazine.
Rael and his architecture students have also experimented with printing houses from mud. Though Rael certainly didn’t invent this idea out of whole cloth — in fact, he grew up in an adobe house in Colorado — he did innovate by pairing mud and 3D-printing technology.
White Clouds: Precise Building Models
Location: Ogden, Utah
How it uses 3D printing: It can be hard to visualize a construction project based solely on a blueprint or a computer simulation. White Clouds offers an alternative: the ultra-precise, 3D-printed miniature. (The company’s 3D printer is so high-resolution, it’s capable of printing a human hair.) The company’s models — made from a choice of resin, plastic and sandstone-esque material — help architects and their collaborators to communicate their visions. Once a building has been erected, the models also function as compelling displays, drawing the eye much the way a dollhouse would.
Images via Shutterstock, social media and company websites.