3-D printing is not only changing how things are made, but also broadening the range of materials manufacturers can make things with - from chocolate to human tissue. Here we look at some of the inventive and unusual ways to employ 3-D printing techniques.
3-D printers work much like inkjet printers. Instead of ink, though, the machines deposit successive layers of different materials, including silver, plastic and titanium to form an actual object. (For a primer on 3-D printing, see the TED Talk with Lisa Harouni, cofounder of Digital Forming.) Once primarily the domain of hobbyists and do-it-yourself enthusiasts who enjoyed experimenting with new designs and materials, the technology has grown and its applications have garnered commercial interest.
Today, the range of products emerging from 3-D printing processes is as unusual as the way they are made: from vinyl records to human bones.
Below are five wild examples of 3-D printing put to use.
The 3-D Chocolate Printer
Engineers at Britain's Exeter University have created a desktop chocolate factory that squirts molten chocolate into precise layers according to computer-modeled designs. Managed by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), the 3-D printer allows users to create their own designs on a computer and reproduce them physically in three-dimensional form using chocolate in lieu of the standard plastic or resin.
"Using a process that creates the product by building up layer upon layer of material, the research team, led by Dr. Liang Hao, chose to experiment with chocolate," according to sustainable-design blog Inhabitat. "Being inexpensive, easily malleable and, not to mention, delicious, chocolate was perfect to play with, as it yields no waste (excess can be melted down or eaten!)."
"The researchers have a loftier goal than consuming lots of chocolate. They hope to involve mainstream consumers in the act of 'co-creation,'" Fast Company's Co.Design notes. "Currently, most 3-D printing services are geared toward those familiar with the software used to design products for 3-D printers."
The 3-D Bioprinter
One San Diego startup is hoping to use 3-D printing to revolutionize the way new medications are developed and tested, focusing on bioprinting technology to create tissue on demand. The company's bioprinter uses human cells to print functional human tissue.
Since 2008, Organovo has worked with a company called Invetech to create a commercial bioprinter called the NovoGen MMX. Organovo scientists have successfully created a number of different tissue samples in their work, including cardiac muscle, lungs and blood vessels.
Organovo executives believe that if they can continue to use 3-D printing in the development of artificial tissues, their research could help companies and large biotechnology firms avoid costly clinical trials that could eventually yield disappointing results. The end goal is to print human organs that can be used in transplants.
Here Dr. Gabor Forgacs, the chief scientific officer of Organovo, discusses the possibilities of organ printing:
The 3-D Plane Printer
Engineers at the University of Southampton, which launched an unmanned air vehicle (UAV) master's course last fall, have designed, printed and launched the world's first aircraft manufactured almost entirely using 3-D printing technology.
Printed on an EOS EOSINT P730 nylon laser sintering machine, the UAV's wings, access hatches and integral control surfaces were custom printed to snap together; it required no fasteners and no tools to assemble. The UAV, with a 2-meter wingspan and a top speed of nearly 100 miles per hour, is powered by an electric motor, which is pretty much the only part of the aircraft not created via additive manufacturing methods.
The plane parts took just two days to design and another five days to print, according to New Scientist.
"Using conventional materials and manufacturing techniques, such as composites, this would normally take months," a press announcement notes. "Furthermore, because no tooling is required for manufacture, radical changes to the shape and scale of the aircraft can be made with no extra cost."
The 3-D Moon Base Printer
Italian inventor Enrico Dini says his massive d_shape 3-D printer can create entire buildings four times faster than could they could be built by conventional means, while also reducing the cost to half or less - with almost no human intervention beyond the design phase. According to science and sci-fi blog io9, the process uses little more than sand and an inorganic bonding material.
The printer works by spraying a thin layer of sand followed by a layer of magnesium-based binder from hundreds of nozzles on its underside, PhysOrg explains. The glue turns the sand to solid stone, which is built layer by layer from the bottom up to form a sculpture, or a sandstone building.
Although it currently uses sand, the device could someday use moon dust as well.
"Having proven the technology, Dini's eyeing a remote building site: the surface of the moon, which has an abundance of both space and raw building material - lunar dust," according to io9.
As part of the European Space Agency's Aurora program, he's been in talks with La Scuola Normale Superiore, architecture firm Norman Foster and Alta Space to modify d_shape to build with moon dust - which means the possibility of an instant moon base.
Although the following video is in Italian, it shows off d_shape in action:
The 3-D Printer Printer
And we've come full circle: "Webca" at digital design community Thingverse has used a 3-D printer to print another printer. The Thingverse champion's creation has linear bearings and a custom-heated build platform. It used more than 15 lbs. of plastic, cost around $3,000 and took approximately eight months to build.