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Building the Future

8 Great Innovations Made Possible Thanks to 3D Printing

Picture of Eldon Burr
by Eldon Burr
Sep 4, 2019
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All over the world, people are discovering that 3D printing can take them to new heights. Discover these 3D printing innovations, all of which more than demonstrate the potential of additive manufacturing.

3D Printing Innovation A Modern Industrial Revolution

Producing ceramics using 3D printing.
Producing ceramics using 3D printing. (Source: borrowbits.com)

3D printing is an innovation that enables individuals all over the world to design their own custom products. Even if one doesn’t have the appropriate equipment, access to 3D printers (via online services) is much more widespread than with conventional manufacturing techniques.

Offering efficiency, customizability, and accessibility to affordable production, 3D printing is changing the dynamics of how we make things. Today, innovative 3D printed products and solutions range from the formerly impossible to impractical ambitions designers and engineers could previously only dream of producing.

The following sections shed light on just some of the 3D printed innovations brought to you by this new industrial revolution! 

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3D Printing Innovation DIY & Open-Source Custom Prostheses

This is an advanced, open-source, wrist-powered prosthesis created by volunteers!
This is an advanced, open-source, wrist-powered prosthesis created by volunteers! (Source: e-NABLE / Thingiverse)

Prostheses have long been an expensive and often inadequate substitute for lost limbs and other body parts. 3D printing is changing all of that by enabling practically anyone to produce a highly-customized prosthesis while spending a fraction of what it would cost with conventional options.

Various kinds of prostheses have been designed by organizations and volunteers in the 3D printing community. They range from commonly-lost limbs such as hands, arms, and legs, to facial reconstruction prosthetics and even items for animals. By scanning and modeling a patient, custom-fitted prostheses can be designed and often printed with commonly available printers and materials.

Along with custom fits and lower costs, 3D printing also brings the ability to design lighter, stronger prostheses, such as William Root’s Exo-Prosthetic leg, which is lighter thanks to the design’s hollow internal geometry.

3D printing has resulted in designs that aren’t exclusively produced by medical companies, meaning they aren’t just standard, “static” products. These prostheses, like many open-source products, are constantly evolving thanks to volunteers who collaborate to continuously build on each other’s designs. For example, Thingiverse user Gael_Langevin created a 3D printed hand for a commercial, meaning it wasn’t even a design for a prosthesis. Then, fellow user gorositomartin built upon his model to make an innovative prosthesis for below-elbow amputees.

Engineers, scientists, and volunteers all over the world are collaborating to create innovative prosthetic devices that amputees wouldn’t otherwise have access to. In some cases, organizations and volunteers such as Guillermo Martinez and his company Ayúdame3D have provided impoverished amputees in the developing world with prostheses they would otherwise have to do without.  

e-Nable is a volunteer organization changing lives as well as how prostheses are designed and distributed by enabling volunteers and individuals to 3D print better, more affordable prostheses and donating them to individuals in need. They have various designs to suit different types of amputees. They’ve even created a few task-specific designs, such as this 3D printed bow holder, made to allow someone born without fingers to play the viola. If you or someone you know is interested in contributing to this effort, the e-Nable website is the best place to start.

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3D Printing Innovation Medicine & Bio-Tech

Prellis Biologics grew these neurons on their 3D printed vascular scaffolds.
Prellis Biologics grew these neurons on their 3D printed vascular scaffolds. (Source: prellisbio.com )

While the technology is far from perfect, 3D printed organs are already on the horizon. Currently, the technology is still largely limited to tissue cultures, like those made by Carnegie Mellon University researchers, that use hydrogels, and “components” of organs such as heart valves. Today, 3D printed living tissues have been produced by researchers, and in some cases, these have even been successfully implanted in lab animals. 

To give you an example, start-up company Prellis Biologics has been 3D printing “vascular bundles” and other tissues. These capillary tissues are vital to organ function, and innovating bio-printed capillaries is a serious step toward the production of fully 3D printed organs. They accomplish this using holographic technology to simultaneously project and print tissue out of biological material. 

3D printed tissue cultures are also changing the way drugs are tested. Cells behave differently in two-dimensional cultures, making them inaccurate approximations for living, three-dimensional tissue cultures. Naturally, 3D printed cultures do not have this issue.

Another innovation in medicine is the advent of 3D printed medication. The first 3D printed medication approved by the FDA is Spritam. This anti-seizure drug has the advantage of rapidly dissolving on the tongue, something traditional medications could not do.

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3D Printing Innovation Implants & Surgical Guides

These facial reconstruction implants are 3D printed with titanium.
These facial reconstruction implants are 3D printed with titanium. (Source: Materialise)

Thanks to 3D technology, scans of a patient’s anatomy can be used to create incredibly precise implants or guides to aid in reconstructive surgery. Both types of devices can be made with unprecedented precision and quality.

Highly-accurate, custom structures aren’t the only benefit. For example, 3D printed titanium implants can be made – using selective laser sintering (SLS) – to be porous or to have special internal geometries. This allows for better osseointegration, meaning that the bone grows and fuses to the titanium throughout the implant, making it more stable and functional.

This is a major advantage, lowering the failure rate of such implants considerably. Conventional designs rely on porous surface coatings and other less effective methods.

Another advantage is that having a custom fit rather than a one-size-fits-all approach reduces the amount of loosening that may occur from an imperfect fit, which produces additional stress and wear on the patient’s bone.

Dental implants and molds are also being created with 3D printing. Scientists and dentists alike are adapting SLA and DLP technology to accomplish this. With modern dental 3D printers, implants or molds can be virtually identical to the original teeth.

Some systems are so efficient that they can mill a tooth on a CNC machine while the patient waits. One research project even used UV-cured dental resins infused with anti-bacterial quaternary ammonium salts to successfully 3D print anti-bacterial teeth!

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3D Printing Innovation On-Demand Production & Design

These parts were produced on demand thanks to 3D printing.
These parts were produced on demand thanks to 3D printing. (Source: javelin-tech.com)

Thanks to 3D printing, production and design are being revolutionized around the world simply by virtue of the fact that it can now be done “on-the-fly”. 

The US military has been experimenting with 3D printing for some time now. One advantage they’re focusing on is the potential for on-demand production of parts and equipment and even UAVs. In some cases, it can take a year to requisition a replacement part, but the USAF has now cut this down to days for some parts thanks to 3D printing. This allows them to keep vehicles and gear maintained much more efficiently and affordably.

Audi has also been getting in on the action by 3D printing car parts, effectively changing the way their production and distribution is carried out. A major benefit is the reduced wait times customers face when ordering complex parts. Using an SLS-type process, they can more efficiently and affordably make lighter parts with complex internal geometry or functions.

3D printing has not only made rapid on-demand production possible but also enabled people practically anywhere to have their designs rapidly come to life. Even without a 3D printer, small- and large-scale production can be accessed through online service like Shapeways, Sculpteo, and i.Materialise. (And making the process even simpler is Craftcloud, All3DP’s 3D printing price comparison service.)

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3D Printing Innovation Advanced Materials

This wing design was printed with carbon fiber composite material.
This wing design was printed with carbon fiber composite material. (Source: continuouscomposites.com )

If you follow 3D printing news, you might notice fairly quickly that advances in materials science are popping up left and right thanks in large part to 3D printing. In addition to composite filaments that have carbon fiber or other additives to enhance strength, 3D printing is enabling the creation of innovative new composite materials. 

Continuous Composites, a company out of Idaho, uses 3D printing to produce continuous carbon fiber composites, which have long strands of carbon fiber running through the print. Other companies are producing and developing innovative methods of producing composites made with materials ranging from Kevlar and fiberglass to carbon fiber and other additives.

Even the US military has been working on innovative advanced 3D printed materials such as composite ceramic body armor. Using two different ceramic materials and a dual extrusion system, they’ve produced a material that’s superior in performance to standard armor.

Metamaterials

“Metamaterials” are another area of materials science benefiting from 3D-printing-related innovation. In particular, functional metamaterials, which work more like complex machines, are made possible thanks to 3D printing. They can function as hinges, door handles, and potentially much more, all without complex moving parts.

At Lawrence Livermore National Labs they’ve developed materials that shrink when heated (rather than expanding). They can also be “tuned” to respond to specific temperature ranges.

Another team at the Delft University of Technology has created auxetic metamaterials that should lead to better hip implants, distributing force more evenly and reducing wear and tear on surrounding bone. These materials are designed with an internal geometry that allows them to expand when pressure is applied.

Continuing with the examples, researchers at Boston University have developed an innovative metamaterial that improves MRI scan quality and speed. This was made possible by 3D printing plastic coils used in the material. They’ve also 3D printed a metamaterial that blocks 94% of sounds while allowing airflow.

Other teams have created metamaterials that manipulate sound as well. One team at USC Viterbi created such a material, which can be activated by a magnetic field. By having iron particles in a lattice structure, a magnetic field can be used to deform the structure into one which traps sounds rather than letting them pass through. 

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3D Printing Innovation Homes & Emergency Shelters

This house was 3D printed in a few weeks.
This house was 3D printed in a few weeks. (Source: iconbuild.com)

3D printing is bringing various innovations to the construction industry. One is 3D printing homes and emergency shelters.

One project, called ICON, has produced a 3D printed home in just a few weeks out of cement and a 3D printing system they developed. As another example, though still in its early stages, researchers at the University of Nantes have developed a 3D printing system capable of building a fully-insulated polyurethane foam housing structure in 20 to 30 minutes using a robotic arm. 

Meanwhile, other companies are innovating in other ways. One company, called Branch Technology creates innovative 3D printed scaffolding with freeform 3D printers that can be used to create stronger, lighter, structures. These structures can be used as they are in some cases, but they can also be filled with low-cost materials to create on-demand housing or reinforced structures. These types of innovations have the potential to reduce costs, raise quality and safety standards, and also speed up construction of homes and other buildings.

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3D Printing Innovation Novel Structures & 4D Smart Objects

These bricks are designed to reduce cooling costs by creating a natural evaporative cooling effect.
These bricks are designed to reduce cooling costs by creating a natural evaporative cooling effect. (Source: emergingobjects.com)

Much like metamaterials, 3D printing is enabling the design and production of innovative structures and materials that have unique and interesting properties. Pioneers at Emerging Objects have created some stunning work in this area. Their rain screens and evaporative cooling bricks, made possible with ceramic 3D printing, are truly innovative while also being a low-tech solution to a common problem.

Another innovation under development in this area are objects that respond to stimuli. These are sometimes referred to as “4D printed” or “smart objects” as they can be made to react to surroundings, and even “self-assemble”.

For example, researchers have created objects that deform, fold, or change shape in response to heat. One way this can be done is by using multiple materials which expand at different rates so that an object flexes in response to heat as one side of the object expands more than the other.  In the future, this innovative technology could be used to create complex objects that could put themselves together, saving time, energy, and resources.

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3D Printing Innovation Drones & Aeronautic Parts

This wing was 3D printed to rapidly create a light and strong jet-powered UAV.
This wing was 3D printed to rapidly create a light and strong jet-powered UAV. (Source: newatlas.com)

Already hobbyists have been 3D printing drone replacement parts on demand. This allows them to get their drone back in the air faster along with offering customization and all the other benefits that come with 3D printing. Even the military and aerospace industry are catching on, using additive manufacturing for drones and other aircraft.

3D printing allows completely sealed, hollow structures, which can be made lighter, stronger, and more efficiently than traditionally-produced unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). This has enabled Stratasys, for example, to create a jet-powered UAV, 80% of which is 3D printed. If necessary, the company says they could produce a second one in a matter of weeks.

The University of Sheffield created a 3D-printed UAV airframe that can be printed and put in the air in a day. These innovative designs drastically reduce costs for testing and producing UAVs as well as the time it takes to create them.

More recently, Titomic 3D printed a titanium drone using their innovative Titomic Kinetic Fusion process, which mechanically fuses titanium powder. This innovative 3D printing method allows them to combine dissimilar metals and materials, creating parts that exhibit unique properties and the benefits of different alloys in the same material. It also eliminates welds and other points of failure that plague traditional manufacturing. 

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3D Printing Innovation Just the Beginning

This circuit is being 3D printed with the Voxel8, the world's first multi-material electronics 3D printer.
This circuit is being 3D printed with the Voxel8, the world's first multi-material electronics 3D printer. (Source: voxel8.com)

3D printing has thus far resulted in a massive burst of innovation in various sectors. The world of tomorrow might very possibly be populated with 3D printed cars, drones, electronics, planes, door knobs, and all kinds of products we either never had, or were never so available, customizable, and affordable.

There’s a lot in the 3D printing world to be excited about – it’s a veritable wild west of possibilities. For better or worse, you could be the next innovator that changes lives, industries, or even the world.

Feature image source: emergingobjects.com

License: The text of "8 Great Innovations Made Possible Thanks to 3D Printing" by All3DP is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

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