Printing in metal, plastic, nylon and a hundred other materials? No, it’s not science fiction, but fact. 3D printing – the ability to produce objects on demand at a relatively low cost – is a top trend once reserved for prototypes and toys that is set to explode into the consumer marketplace.
3D printers can print manufacturing prototypes, end user products, motor vehicle spares, aircraft engine parts and even human organs using a person’s own cells. They create a three dimensional object building successive layers, each one a thinly sliced, horizontal cross section of the object – until the entire thing is complete.
Read Next: What 3D Printing Means for Small Business
Here are some examples of weird and wonderful things you can get out of a 3D printer:
1. An affordable home
The University of Southern California is testing a giant 3D printer that could be used to build a whole house in under 24 hours. The giant robot replaces construction workers with a nozzle on a gantry, which squirts out concrete and can quickly build a home according to a computer pattern. It is “basically scaling up 3D printing to the scale of building. The technology, known as Contour Crafting, could revolutionise the construction industry, making it possible for millions of poor or displaced people to get a house.
A revolutionary 3D concrete printer can build a 2,500-square-foot home layer by layer in a single day.
2. Chocolate with style
Printing and manufacturing company 3D Systems has a development agreement with chocolate company Hershey “to explore and develop innovative opportunities for using 3D printing technology in creating edible foods, including confectionery treats.” The printers could allow manufacturers to create chocolate in new shapes and customised designs. Hershey isn’t the first company to see 3D potential for chocolate: UK-based Choc Edge offers a printer for £2,888 (R52 000) and a pack of syringes and chocolate for £15 that create what are essentially chocolate illustrations.
With 3D printing, you can make creative, personalised and decorative chocolate products
To keep astronauts happy in space, NASA granted contractor Systems & Materials Research $125 000 to develop a pizza printer. The prototype uses shelf-stable powdered food and oils, offering nutrition while minimising garbage while in space. It first prints a layer of dough onto a heated plate that bakes the dough and then lays down a tomato base that has been stored in powdered form and mixed with water and oil. Last comes a printed “protein layer.” Yum.
A pizza fit for astronauts
Natural Machine’s Foodini ($1,400, about R15 000) can make many kinds of food. Mashable explains the ravioli printing process as follows: “Prepare the dough and the filling, load them into the machine’s food ‘capsules’ and select ‘ravioli’ on the printer’s iPad-like interface. Foodini will then print the ingredients in the shape of fully-formed ravioli, and the only thing left to do is cook them.”
No time to shop? Simply print your pasta
5. Chickpea nuggets
Foodini chefs also served up vegan nuggets made of chickpeas, bread crumbs, garlic, spices, olive oil, and salt and in perfect animal shapes. The machine can also print quiche, hash browns, cookies, crackers, brownies, and “designed” fish and chips.
Change the shape of food merely by loading a new vector image
6. Corn chips
Cornell Creative Machines Lab has built a printer that can create flower-shaped corn chips, using masa dough – a Spanish recipe that uses maize or corn. The printer can also make hamburger patties with ketchup and mustard included.
Swirly custom made corn chips
7. Cake decorations
3D Systems has launched the ChefJet series of 3D printers, a kitchen-ready 3D printer category for edibles. The first two in the series are the monochrome, countertop ChefJet 3D printer and the full-colour, larger format ChefJet Pro 3D printer. Apparently, these are must-haves for the professional baker, cake master, and high-end restaurateur. They can print uniquely shaped sugar confections in flavours such as chocolate, vanilla, mint, cherry, sour apple, and watermelon. And they also do custom cake toppers, so you can presumably order wedding figurines in the likeness of the bride and groom.
Kitchen-ready printers for bakers and chefs
8. A working gun
We’ve seen them on TV and they look more like toys than deadly weapons, but they work. In 2012, Cody Wilson, from the University of Texas’ law school, successfully made a gun that, except for a firing pin made from a metal nail, is made from plastic pieces printed on an $8 000 (R87 000) Stratasys Dimension SST 3D printer.
The world’s first 3D printed gun
9. Human stem cells
Scientists have developed a 3D printer for stem cells, which works by creating uniform droplets of living embryonic stem cells. These are cells present in early development and are capable of differentiating into any type of tissue. The printer is so accurate that it can squirt out as few as five cells at a time without damaging them. The eventual goal is to grow whole organs from scratch.
Researchers can use the dabs of cells to test drugs or to build miniature bits of tissue
10. A violin
DIY violin-maker Alex Davies used 3D printing to make a plastic frame for a violin’s body, which he and his team then covered in newspaper and glue. The neck was made from a piece of cardboard, and picture-hanging wire served for strings. It’s no Stradivarius, but its creators declared it “not bad for a weekend and $12.”
The world’s first 3D-printed violin is a combination of technology and papier-mâché
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11. A skull
3D-printed organs are still a bit of a pipedream, but scientists can already build some body parts. Replacing damaged bone is not new, but surgeons have replaced 75% of a man’s skull with a plastic one made by 3D printing. The OsteoFab implant is the first to be custom manufactured via 3D printing, which helps bring down the cost. Oxford Performance Materials, the company that created the implant, plans to work on other implants for the rest of the body.
This material is not only biocompatible but is bone-like and will not interfere with x-ray scanning.
12. Bionic ear
Princeton University researchers have created a 3D-printed bionic ear. Made from calf cells, a polymer gel and silver nanoparticles, it can pick up radio signals beyond the range of human hearing. The researchers made the ear by printing the gel into an approximate ear shape and then cultured the calf cells onto the matrix. The silver nanoparticles were infused to create an “antenna” for picking up radio signals, which can be transferred to the cochlea, the part of the ear that translates sound into brain signals. As yet, there are no plans to attach the ear to a head.
13. A bikini
The world’s first ready-to-wear 3D-printed bikini is sold by Continuum Fashion. The bikini is made of 3D-printed circular plates of nylon connected by thin springs. Because every bikini is made to order, buyers have to order piece-by-piece. It’s not cheap, however – a single bikini cup starts at $88 (R960).
Tech storm in a B cup
14. Egyptian hairstyles
3D printing has brought elaborate braids – as worn by mummified ancient Egyptian women – back in vogue, well not quite. In 2013, researchers at McGill University’s Redpath Museum revealed detailed facial reconstructions created with a combination of computed tomography (CT) scanning and 3D printing. One 20-year-old woman wore her hair pulled back in multiple plaits wound into a chignon at the crown of her head.
Ancient Egyptian women were often mummified wearing elaborate braids