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What Can You Make with a 3D Printer?

When it comes to 3D printing, do you think primarily of prototypes or trinkets and toys? Then it’s time to think again. Today, 3D printing is used in an amazing number of innovative ways to help make our world a better place — on land, in the sea, and even on Mars. Here are just a few examples.

3D printed house

Source: BANDD Designs/ICON/New Story

San Francisco housing non-profit New Story, in partnership with construction technology company Icon is using 3D printing to build a community of tiny homes in Mexico. The structures took only 24 hours of print time and 10 families moved into printed homes in 2021.

In 2018, New Story used 3D printing to produce a 350-square-foot tiny home in 48 hours for $10,000. Projections for 600- to-800-square foot homes based on that prototype were estimated to come in under $4,000 with a build time of just 24 hours. These fast, affordable homes are designed for use in diverse locations — from providing economical housing in Texas, all the way to rough climates and terrains in El Salvador.

Look beyond planet Earth, and we see the 3D Printed Habitat Challenge. Launched by NASA, this initiative is driving innovation in technologies needed to autonomously 3D print habitats with indigenous resources and recyclable materials on the moon, Mars, and other planets.

3D printed customized medical devices

In a healthcare setting, where time is critical and precise designs are required, additive manufacturing technologies can make a huge impact. 3D printing allows medical manufacturers to fine-tune instruments faster, or even create customized end-use devices. Shukla Medical uses metal 3D printing to prototype tools for orthopedic surgeons. By printing in carbon fiber, Shukla Medical is able to test instruments that have the same weight as real surgical tools—meaning surgeons can get a real feel for using the tool before production to make sure it’s the right design. Shukla uses a carbon fiber 3D printer for initial prototypes, and then the Metal X system for the final prototype that goes into the hands of surgeons for evaluation.

With TPU (Thermoplastic Polyurethane) 3D printing, the Central Virginia VA Health Care System created a stylus holder, designed as a wrist strap with a slot to help veterans with limited hand dexterity to securely hold a writing implement. The rubber-like material helps keep the stylus in place while allowing the user to comfortably write. Traditional manufacturing would require individual casts for each one-off stylus, a prohibitively time consuming and expensive option. With Smooth TPU 95A, the VA team is able to create fully functional, custom prints quickly: without the extra cost or production time of traditional manufacturing methods.

3D printed coral reef

Source: Alex Goad, Reef Design Lab

The delicate ecosystems that support coral reefs around the world are already falling victim to rising ocean water temperatures. Engineers and scientists are exploring the possibility of employing 3D printing to create “new” coral reefs to provide a temporary yet flexible enough solution to recreate complex coral shapes in a way that invites the return of sea life.

Additionally, ongoing research has identified 3D printed biomaterials that can host living microalgae in the same way natural coral does.

Printed production parts

One of security systems manufacturer KST Moschkau’s products is an outdoor housing for the Panasonic PTZ camera. Originally, the camera housing was designed in-house and the components were outsourced to CNC shops to be machined out of aluminum.

As demand quickly outpaced supply on hand, KST Moschkau initially turned to 3D printing on the FX20 to not only expedite prototyping, but also replace machined aluminum on the final product.

Check out our 3D Printer Buyer's Guide

3D bioprinting

Source: UoT

‍On the medical front, researchers are developing 3D printing systems that print living tissue over deep wounds and serious burns. For example, scientists from the University of Toronto and Sunnybrook Research Institute have created a handheld 3D bioprinter that prints skin cells to treat burn victims. And a team at Wake Forest School of Medicine has developed a 3D printer that uses skin cells instead of ink, layering new healthy skin over damaged skin.

3D printed industrial tooling

Source: Siemens Gas & Power

Using Markforged Industrial Series 3D printers and continuous carbon fiber material, Siemens Gas & Power created a 3D printed customized circular cutting saw — and only needed to purchase the motor and blade. The Gas & Power division owns compressors, generators, and turbines around the world. Often, the gas turbine housings need maintenance, so engineers need to use a circular saw to repair them. Standard cutting saws aren’t contoured, meaning the team used to send all the components overseas, wait for the custom plate to be made, and then reassemble the tool when they received the parts back. By using 3D printed components, the team saved roughly $8,000 per tool (of which there are many), and reduced lead time by 35 days. Now, their engineers can efficiently repair turbines in the field instead of waiting on third parties.

3D printing innovation knows no bounds

There’s much more on the list of applications for 3D printing, all happening now in myriad industries using a variety of innovative technologies and materials. Think dentistry, eyewear, prosthetics, furniture design, archaeology, paleontology, and forensic sciences, to name just a few. And you can be sure that the creative and diverse uses for 3D printing will continue to grow — and continue to improve the way we live and work.

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