The concept of custom manufacturing is exciting to nearly everyone, but it always seems to be something that will happen in the “future”. Gibson was right and the following list of applications for 3D printers show the truth in the saying “The future is here. It’s just not evenly distributed yet.” The following items are all available for purchase or are being used in industry now. We are still a long way from Replicators like the ones from Star Trek: The Next Generation, but we probably won’t have to wait til the 24th century either.
3D printing allows artists to create objects that would be incredibly difficult, costly, or time intensive using traditional processes. These sculptures by Bathsheba Grossman are exquisitly complex and manufactured using a laser sintering process.
2. Action Figures
Blood Elves and bandmates can both be brought to life using 3D printers. These two were created using zCorp machines which apply glue ink and powder in fine layers slowly creating a replica of one of your characters. FigurePrints allows you to create characters from Warcraft, Rockband and Spore printing services are coming soon. A number of other sites allow you to pull data from Second Life and your own 3D programs.
Jewelry makers were some of the first to use 3D printing in their manufacturing process, however they do not use metal printers, but rather ones that use wax. In a process called “investment casting” a piece of jewelry is sculpted or printed out of wax. Plaster is then poured on either side. Molten metal is poured onto the wax which melts out leaving a metal version of your wax sculpt in its place in the plaster. This piece is then finished and polished by a jeweler. Many independent jewelers have been using high tech printers in their businesses and an innovative company called Paragon Lake has combined this process with web based design tools to offer an infinite inventory to the masses of jewelery stores.
4. Hearing Aids
3D printers can also make things more functional. In the case of hearing aids a cast of your ear canal is made. The casting is digitized using a 3D scanner and a perfect replica of your ear is printed from that ensuring a great fit and improving the quality.
Prototyping in product development is currently the biggest use of 3D printing technology. These machines allow designers and engineers to test out ideas for dimensional products cheaply before committing to expensive tooling and manufacturing processes.
6. Home Decor
Home goods are structurally simple but endlessly decorative and are perfect matches for 3D printing. This service, called “Shapeways Creator” allows you to create products like this lamp with any selection of words that have relevance to you (wedding vows, a favorite poem, etc.). Another company called JuJups allows you to make a customized picture frame using intelligent design tools and a zCorp printer.
Sales folks lives get much easier when you can have models like this of your product printed up for show and tell.
Many of the examples so far are somewhat gimmicky or decorative, However in some industries 3D printing is displacing traditional manufacturing entirely. In the left hand picture a surgical knee replacement implant has been designed and manufactured to fit a patient’s joint perfectly. On the right, high tolerance engine parts were printed using a process called “Electron Beam Melting” and finished with traditional machining processes. While not the norm these uses begin to suggest what is possible in medicine and industry.
3D World of Warcraft characters are cool, but these tools have the power to help save lives. Surgeons are using 3d printers to print body parts for reference before complicated surgeries. Other 3D printers are used to create bone grafts for patients who have suffered traumatic injuries. Looking further in the future scientist are working on PRINTING replacement organs. Personal Fabrication indeed!