Here are 600 ways that 3D printing is changing the world

Here are 600 ways that 3D printing is changing the world

Summary: A new exhibition has opened in London to show off the multitude of uses that are being found for 3D printers.

TOPICS: Hardware

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  • The impact of 3D printing on manufacturing will be as profound as the Industrial Revolution by the estimation of some tech industry pundits.

    Today there are certainly a growing number of industries building 3D models, with fields as diverse as aerospace and biotechnology finding a use for 3D printing.

    Lower cost 3D printers are beginning to find their way into homes too, with 3D printers priced at around £1,000 available in office and computer stores, as well as shopping hubs like Amazon.

    There's also a burgeoning community of hobbyists building their own 3D printers based on open source designs, such as RepRap, and sharing designs for a wealth of objects through the online portal Thingiverse.

    Even more exotic uses of 3D printers are being researched, including machines that build bone using stem cells and that create objects out of wood filaments, cement polymer and salt.

    "3D printing is really reaching out and touching everything. It's comparable to the web in that it's a technology that can be applied to whatever you want it for," said Dave Marks, media and content director for 3D Printshow, which provided the printers for the show.

    The breadth of what 3D printers can build was on show at the Science Museum in London, which yesterday opened an exhibit of more than 600 3D printed objects ranging from satellite sensors to prosthetic arms.

    3D printing has several advantages over traditional manufacturing techniques. Building a model doesn't require spending thousands or more to set up machine tools and then thousands more when you want to change that model. It makes it financially viable to build one-off models and to tweak and customise 3D models in a way that would rapidly become hugely expensive using traditional manufacturing methods. Making simple repairs to old household appliances, rather than replacing them, also becomes more viable when spare parts can be printed off in your living room, rather than having to be tracked down and ordered online. Using a 3D printer also cuts down the supply chain: the network of factories, warehouses and shipping companies normally needed to get a product to an end user.

    3D printing can also build objects using novel materials with complex shapes and structures that would be extremely difficult to reproduce using traditional methods. General Electric recently revealed a 3D-printed ceramic and carbon fiber jet engine whose lightweight design should allow for fuel economy unmatched by conventionally made counterparts. Waste can be reduced as the printer is generally using only the materials needed to build the object, rather than carving material out of a larger structure to create an object.

    But in general 3D printers are also slow, two-inch high figurines printed out at the Science Museum exhibition took about one hour to print, are far more expensive than traditional manufacturing techniques for mass production and consumer grade 3D printers are only able to produce relatively simple plastic models.

    How 3D printers work

    3D printers work by taking a 3D computer model and slicing it into layers. The 3D printer then builds the object layer by layer using one of a number of methods.

    Most home and hobbyist printers print using Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM), which basically builds a model out of molten plastic. FDM machines feed plastic thread into a printer head, where the plastic is melted and squeezed out of a nozzle called an extruder. The head traces the outline of each layer, gradually building the model using melted plastic.

    The quality of the finished model depends on many factors, including the quality of the base material, how thinly sliced the model is, the mechanics of the 3D printer and the care taken in preparing the 3D computer model.

    Yet the quality of 3D models produced by FDM generally don't match those built by some other more costly 3D printing technologies used by industry. One such technology is laser sintering.

    Laser sintering uses a laser to fuse powder together into the model. The process works by tracing the outline of each each layer onto powdered material using a laser to fuse the object together layer by layer. Laser sintering is able to reproduce fine details and build models out of a wider range of materials than FDM, such as ceramics, metals and glass.

    While the FDM printers available to novice home users today generally produce relatively simple models in a single colour and material, more advanced machines are becoming available.

    The quality of 3D printers available to home users is expected to take a leap forward from next year after patents run out on key technologies related to laser sintering, which in the long run may make sintering machines affordable for the home user.

  • A bank of 3D printers were on display at the exhibition building models of people scanned at the museum.

    Each figurine takes roughly one hour to print, but the time can vary depending on the level of detail reproduced on the finished object.

    The level of detail can be adjusted by altering the thickness of the layer of the model printed out, generally the thinner layer the greater the detail and the longer the model will take to print out.

    This machine is a first generation Ultimaker 3D printer, a roughly $1,000 FDM machine that prints in one colour, similar to many other machines aimed at the home market.

    Common uses of home 3D printers include creating bespoke items such as phone cases and customising toys for children.

    While demoing the Ultimaker at the exhibit a model print had to be abandoned after the half-printed model came loose from the base, a problem that originated from how the print job had been set up. 3D printers need to become as simple as 2D printers to set up and use if they are to gain mainstream acceptance, according to 3D Printshow's Masters.

    "For a paper printer you shove in a print cartridge and off you go," he said.

    "For a 3D printer there is a certain amount of parameter tweaking, a certain amount of skill that is required to get the best quality out of the machine."

Topic: Hardware


Nick Heath is chief reporter for TechRepublic UK. He writes about the technology that IT-decision makers need to know about, and the latest happenings in the European tech scene.

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  • misleading title

    I was expecting a 600 page slideshow.
    I am disappoint.
    • I had the VERY same thought !

      ;-) Kinda shocked that it WASN'T !
    • It's not misleading.

      They want to remove $600 from your pocket if you want one.
  • Yes, but...

    "But in general 3D printers are also slow, two-inch high figurines printed out at the Science Museum exhibition took about one hour to print, are far more expensive than traditional manufacturing techniques for mass production and consumer grade 3D printers are only able to produce relatively simple plastic models."

    This is true as of a while back; however, as the technology advances (and it is advancing very quickly), it gets cheaper and faster. There are home models of 3D printers available that cost under $1,000 and take about 30 minutes for an average sized item, such as an iPhone case and it ends up with a product cost of about $20 (factoring in the cost and expected life span of the machine). So, not bad for a custom iPhone case. And we will continue to see the costs drop and speeds increase as time goes on.

    My guess is that by mid 2015 or so we will see consumer machines that can make these objects in about 10 minutes for about $10 for an iPhone case. And professional level machines that could make a case in about 1 minute for about $1 a case.
    • There are Cheaper Models

      The change will happen with new devices that are cheaper and easy to operate.
      Dana Angela Williams
  • Not sold yet

    The plastic printers are great for mock ups and prototyping but durable goods? I see the laser on metal powder as the most promising and useful printer.
    • Not yet

      If you check out the 3D printer kits you will see that the plastic parts have been produced from the same 3D printer. However, I would agree that metal in powder is best for many applications, such as an exhaust manifold for a Maserati, but even though it defies most people's common logic, many plastic parts do not need to be durable but they still outlast the lifetime of the product. In any case, the 3D printer is not meant for mass production since mass product is for quantities of millions. The 3D printer normally for when the part changes design or the design is too complicated for other conventional techniques eg. false teeth, replace a part for something that is no longer available, a filter for a Mars mission, a complex wax mold for metal casting. However, metal powder with laser is as time consuming as some kinds of CNC milling operations already in use today, so for many applications it will be more cost effective to use traditional production techniques.
  • It's all very well, but.......

    "Using a 3D printer also cuts down the supply chain: the network of factories, warehouses and shipping companies normally needed to get a product to an end user" Where will all these workers find jobs if that quote is true & these companies are truly no longer needed?
  • Here are 600 ways that 3D printing...

    I suggest who likes this kind of subject to read also the News Scientist Magazine (on-line) article with the title: “3D printer provides woman with a brand new jaw” (08 February 2012).

    The article link is at:

    The movie link is at:

    At the movies it appears also a partial plastic 3D printing of the face bones.

    Enjoy it,

    L. R. Lima
    Rio de Janeiro – RJ
  • A great leap

    Wow! It is exciting to know that we will have another great change for us, as sweeping as the Industrial Revolution once was. Thanks
  • 3D printer is so great

    The applications of 3D printing becoming more widely.When this technique has just been launched,it can only be applied to manufacturing or medical sector.And now as the technology matures, the applications has expanded to aerospace, military,arts and other fields.It seems that 3D printing does have a good space for development.Interested in 3D print can log onto the view details.