It seems like every generation in the past century or so has achieved something “impossible”. Overcoming a depression, winning a war, landing on the moon, communicating without wires…. the list goes on for quite a while, even as we go further back through history.
Human beings are fascinated by achieving things that previous generations had deemed impossible, and with the rise of 3D printing, we are once again finding ways to break down impossible boundaries. Some of the coolest, strangest, and most important discoveries in the field of 3D printing have come in the last 2-3 years, but with this market set to expand exponentially in the next half-decade, expect to see a lot more impossible creations from the industry!
The Next Generation of 3D Printing
In our society, we have a habit of creating rough prototypes of ideas and then improving them as we go, boosting efficiency and safety after announcing our achievement to the world. Occasionally, a major leap forward in technology, or a new appreciation for its applications, causes a surge of attention and innovation in a given field. If you want to understand more about the details of the 3D printing process, check out our 3D printing article here.
Those leaps forward that spur innovation are certainly evident in 3D printing, which was largely under the radar since it was first used in the early 1980s. At a certain point, sometime around 2010, 3D printers began dropping in price and were being offered for broader public purchase. The technology gained more interest, and has continued to improve, leading to seemingly “impossible” advances in manufacturing, biomedical fields, entertainment, organic chemistry, aviation, and many more. Let’s take a look at some of the best examples of impossible 3D printing!
In the past, repairing certain parts of the body, or parts of organs, has been impossible, typically requiring a complete transplant or risky surgeries. With 3D bioprinting, it is now possible to print blood vessels, windpipe sections, and other sections of key organs. These functional printed parts can restore nearly normal function, and this is just the beginning. By using living cells and combining them with cartilage, collagen, and other essential components of tissue, creating a full-functioning organ that is customized to a patient’s DNA could be possible in the coming years.
Researchers have already grown livers, ears, skin, bones, eyes, lungs, and even hearts! While there are still some obvious challenges in sending the spark of “life” into these organs, this is one of the most exciting and heavily invested areas of 3D printing.
A slightly related field is the 3D printing of prosthetic limbs for children, which can often be custom-designed and colored by the children. This is an ideal solution for kids, who quickly outgrow traditional prostheses, because 3D printing is so much less expensive!
One of the best advantages to 3D printing is that the modeling software can be tested in any number of ways, including to determine strength-to-weight ratios. This allows for the construction of strong, reliable 3D objects that are significantly lighter than traditional materials. For example, airplane manufacturers are constantly looking for ways to make their planes lighter, and just as safe.
3D printing of airplane parts could take advantage of these impressive strength-to-weight ratios of 3D polymers and drop the weight of airplanes by more than 50%. That would mean drastically lower fuel costs and much less of an impact on the environment!
3D printing is going to make a splash in the automotive industry in more ways than one in the coming years. A number of concept 3D-printed cars have already been revealed at car shows, and are currently being tested and improved before being legally allowed on the road. However, the cars are up to 40% lighter than traditional cars, have much lower fuel requirements, and are composed of nearly 100% 3D-printed parts. The “Strati” was the first 3D-printed car, but a new competitor, Local Motors (based in Phoenix, AZ, USA) will likely be the first company to mass-produce 3D-printed cars for the road.
Customized automotive parts is the second hugely important possibility of 3D printing for the automotive industry. Instead of the traditional long waits for specific parts, or huge expenses for foreign part replacement, 3D printing is allowing mechanics and automotive companies to not only quickly supply an important demand, thus dropping the price, and also allowing for ultimate customization of cars. Do you want a more comfortable seat? A steering wheel designed specifically for your grip? Things that mass production and injection molding once prohibited are now becoming a reality – for a price, of course!
Although organic chemistry may be little more than a bad dream from your university days, the field is still hugely important for medical research and other sciences. 3D printers can now create large, perfectly proportioned models of organic molecules, which was impossible with traditional injection molding techniques. The angles and intricacies were too delicate, but now, organic chemists are able to improve their practical knowledge of molecular interaction, thus speeding up the research process, enabling faster and more effective drug testing, and increasing our expertise at the molecular level.
The idea of 3D-printed food may not sound particularly appetizing, but the possibility of creating high-nutrient mixes, pastas, and doughs is very intriguing. From ensuring that nursing home residents meet their nutritional needs to gourmet chefs experimenting with new tastes and consistencies, 3D printing a meal might be a lot closer than you think. From a more novel perspective, some people (like pastry chefs) are creating exquisitely designed frosting decorations with 3D food printers, creating foods that are truly works of art!
This is just the beginning for the world of 3D printing, and frankly, I can’t wait to see the next “impossible” thing that this incredible new technology achieves!
- Medical Applications for 3D Printing – National Center for Biotechnology Information
- Engineering & Technology Magazine
- Strati (Automobile) – Wikipedia
- Dinner in 3D – The Fu Foundation School of Engineering (Columbia University)