Uses of 3D Printers

Since the 1980s when 3D printing technology was first implemented it has been called “the overnight revolution decades in the making”. But in the progress that has been made in the last decade has overshadowed much of the dream. From being an industry changing technology that would enable manufacturing to gain new heights, it has instead found its appeal in the hands of individuals, who embody the potential of 3D printing technology through early adoption and experimentation.


3D printers are a revolutionary device full of infinite possibilities. Their utility is widespread across almost all realms of user types. We take a look at its various uses in different fields.

The Potential of 3D printing

Since the 1980s when 3D printing technology was first implemented it has been called “the overnight revolution decades in the making”. But in the progress that has been made in the last decade has overshadowed much of the dream. From being an industry changing technology that would enable manufacturing to gain new heights, it has instead found its appeal in the hands of individuals, who embody the potential of 3D printing technology through early adoption and experimentation.

And even as 3D printing technologies continue to develop and mature, the benchmark for their potential is higher than can be imagined if we consider the underlying potential of the technology. We will take a look at the foundations of 3D printing technology and see how they connect to its applications in the present as well as the future.

Even surrealist imagery isn’t impossible

Potential 1: Manufacturing with 3D printers has been proven to be elegant and simple when compared with traditional manufacturing methods. Typically we find that the more complex an objects design or shape it, the more expensive it is to produce, when using traditional technologies. However with 3D printers, this problem is resolved, as the level of complexity has no bearing on the costs of manufacturing. Since the craftsmanship required is unified in the software end of the process, issues such as skill, time and cost are relatively the same across a wide variety of objects. The only variable becomes the cost of materials and time taken to fabricate, which is independent from the complexity of the design. This feature disrupts the traditional economics of how products are valued and changes the business of manufacturing radically.

Potential 2: The age of mass production has brought us to a place where it is easier and cheaper to manufacture identical objects in large units to optimize costs. But since 3D printing exists outside of this constraint, the potential for infinite variety is already at hand. A 3D printer is not restrained by the design of its products and can produce objects of a wide variety with equal ease. Traditional methods require fixed assets like moulds or assembly line configurations that are complicated and expensive to implement, making it worthwhile only if large units of identical products are manufactured, but with 3D printing we can create a variety of products using the same 3D printer asset. It effectively allows for an all-in-one factory.

Open ended 3D printers can be augmented to increase their scale of printing by a great degree.

Potential 3: The workflow of traditional manufacturing is based on a sequence of stages where products are created piece by piece and then assembled together. With 3D printing the entire manufacturing workflow is unified into a single step. Since 3D printers can form interlocking elements the restraint of time needed to assemble parts is broken. Even vastly complex assortment of parts such as those in a gun or a car do not pose a problem for 3D printing and saves significant effort of labour and time which would otherwise be wasted in assembling. This advantage has complementary effects on the supply chain, which helps in saving money otherwise spent on transportation and labour, as well as the fact that they save the environment from pollution.

Potential 4: Unlike traditional printing techniques the amount of time required for planning, and implementation is greatly reduced when working with a 3D printer. Due to this saving we can produce products on demand, as and when it is needed and ready. Even in cases where designs and plans are already prepared, traditional manufacturing has a start-up time cost whereas with 3D printing it is just seconds away. Business’ and personal manufacturing is immediate and fulfilment is maximised, so far as to say, that even expenses related to the transportation of goods can be minimized since they can be printed closer to the location where they are needed, effectively putting an end to warehousing and storage of inventory.

The Aston Martin used in James Bond’s Skyfall was a 3D printed model.

Potential 5: One of the most practical, and most fun, potential of 3D printing is its openness to the imagination. The requirements of creation usually involve a great deal of consideration in relation to the how of manufacturing; questions such as do we have the right tools and do we have the right machines become no longer an issue with 3D printing. The imagination to design and create is limitless and negligible in costs. In traditional setups a furniture designer would be limited by the machines available such as a milling machine or a sander, and would have to design based on those restrictions, however with 3D printers they can design with full freedom and allow exploration and creation of new unlikely designs. Using this freedom we already see shapes and designs only found in nature becoming a part of the designers inspiration.

Potential 6: Traditional manufacturing requires a large number of people with an array of skillsets to make any product a reality; the designers themselves would need years of hands on training with materials before they have the necessary skills to replicate even a basic object. With the use of computer guided machines and computer aided design software this limitation is eased since the design files are all that a 3D printer needs to produce any product. This freedom to create with unskilled manufacturing allows products to be accessible in areas where skill is limited or remotely placed.

Potential 7: Traditional manufacturing calculates productivity based on the quantity of creation per volume of production space. In most cases this means that large manufacturing machines can only create products or parts that are considerably smaller than the machines themselves.

Even on a nano-scale this model of London’s Tower Bridge isn’t beyond reality. Made by Vienna Institute of Technology.

But in the world of 3D printing this barrier is no longer true. Even a small 3D printer has greater productivity per volume of production space and can be arranged in a configuration of autonomously mobile printing apparatus so that they can print objects much larger than the printer themselves. This form of high production capacity allows 3D printers to find utility in a home as well as a business.

Potential 8: As we’ve already discussed, the vastness of traditional manufacturing leads to many other costs, a significant part of which are by product waste material. In the case of 3D printing, the precision and method of manufacturing makes wastage near negligible. In industries where metal is used, it is found that traditional methods leave nearly 90 percent of the source apart from the final product due to finishing and polishing steps, which creates more waste per product. With modern metal based 3D printers, this wastage is significantly minimised making 3D printing a far more eco-friendly alternative.

Industrial use, prototyping and efficiency

All great innovations require large scale investments to find footing as they evolve. In this respect, 3D printing is already seeing significant interest from corporations and investors. The large scale usage of 3D printing not only makes it a viable alternative to traditional manufacturing methods and an alluring investment opportunity for innovators but also allows it to be integrated into the mainstream consumer usage. The industry in this respect is critical towards making 3D printing a norm in society.

One of the fundamental methods of industrial usage for 3D printing lies in its use for rapid prototyping. The ranges of techniques that encompass rapid prototyping allow large scale manufacturers to very quickly create a simulated fabrication of any physical object in a three dimensional computer aided program. As industries use 3D printing to produce and test their products it brings the cost of creating mass producible items down and makes it cheaper for the end-user.

A car engine prototype can be printed in hours and ready for testing. Faster than ever before and cheaper too.

Rapid prototyping through 3D printing also enables industries to create the exact number of required parts without relying on the economies of scale, which would otherwise force them to expend resources on larger manufacturing orders. The print to use principle of 3D printing becomes an integral component of product design and costing.

Currently the use of 3D printing in rapid prototyping is in its infancy but has been described as the “next level” of manufacturing technology since 2009 by many experts. The key obstacle in the use of 3D printers within industry lies in its relatively slow speed of printing. This barrier is being resolved with each successive generation of 3D printers and is expected to match up to traditional manufacturing methods within the next ten years.

With investment in 3D printers for in-house use already seeing a gradual increase within large scale manufacturing units, the number of companies to adopt the technology is predicted to rise rapidly according to experts. Major companies such as General Electric, Ford Motors, Nike, Rolls Royce and Mattel use 3D printing in a variety of ways to enhance the production of their products.

The world’s largest aviation manufacturer, GE, is able to improve productivity on the most complex designs using 3D printing.

GE Aviation is one of the largest companies to take on the use of 3D printing for its manufacturing process’. A critical component within the development process for its latest LEAP jet engines is the creation of more than 85,000 fuel injection nozzles. Normally these each nozzle is assembled from twenty distinct components but with the use of 3D printers GE Aviation is able to able to create each unit in a single print process with no assembly requirements.

The new process has proven to be more efficient than traditional methods on a number of levels, from product strength to per unit cost. It has also allowed engineers to design components that are more complex without the fear of additional manufacturing complexity such as the creation of integrated air passages within the components that allow for easy airflow and cooling which can withstand temperatures of over 2400 degrees Fahrenheit! You can expect to witness these components in action with the use of the next range of Boeing 737 MAX and Airbus A320neo aircrafts, which will be using this next generation engine.

General Electric is also working towards using 3D printing technologies with is range of healthcare and medical devices. Its experiments with ultrasound probing have already proven successful. These small devices are printed with the intent to be used on patients to give sonar like imaging ability to doctors. Normally these types of probes require a high degree of crafting due to the detailed patterning of their design however with the use of 3D printers they can be created in one seamless step which helps cut costs up to 30 percent. For similar reasons Rolls Royce, a cutting edge engineering based company, is investing in 3D printing for component manufacturing, in order to create better, faster and more cost effective parts for its products.

In the automotive industry Ford Motors is planning to create a system whereby their customers would be able to print their own replacement parts. Traditionally, replacement parts need to be shipped from the factory to mechanics or service centres and can lead to days of work. But Ford wants to find a way so that customers can download the designs of the parts locally and have it printed at home or at the service centre within hours.

Till such a time as that is possible Ford is using 3D printing to run prototyping on the components test vehicles and has been doing so since the late 1980s. Using large scale industrial grade 3D printers, Ford saves countless amounts of man hours when testing and designing components for its cars, engines and other automotive systems. On average, Ford is able to save one month of production time on certain lines of engines, which include a complex array of features such as ports, passages and valves with no loss in quality. The ability to quickly create and test these prototypes allows them to work towards not only enhance fuel efficiency designs but also experiment with a variety of designs in one rotation. Traditional manufacturing based prototyping would take up to four or five months per component.

Mattel Toys uses dozens of 3D printers to make prototypes of its toys using clay and wax, before the final model is rendered in plastic. Nearly every product made by Mattel incorporates 3D printed components including the popular Barbie and Hot Wheel toys. Other end user companies like shoe manufacturers Nike and New Balance are able to design sports shoes which are built according to the specific feet scans of athletes allowing for greater comfort, safety and speed. In some respects, this inclusion of 3D printing in apparel and shoes is hopeful for a world without sweatshops.

Consumer use and Customised Manufacturing

And even as larger industries are considering how the benefits of 3D printing can be incorporated further into their business models, it is at the level of consumer business’ where the highest levels of engagement is seen. The idea of mass customization allows for customers to directly influence the style, look, shape and features of their products. From jewellery to sports good, every customer can demand a distinct identity for their personal products. Small businesses in the U.S. are already tapping into this desire with the features of 3D printing. Traditionally, customization has always been the last step of any products creation chain, such as a photo print on a mug that was made blank, but with 3D printing the mug can be made to sleekly fit the hand of its user if so desired. Any number of personalised features can be included in a wide range of products without the need for large scale mass production.

Visitors at CES 2014 were able to get themselves printed as Star Trek action figures. Shut up and take my money!

Using consumer scale 3D printers that can come for as low as USD $1000 (Rs.62,000) in the market, designers are producing goods for their customers both locally and through shipping. With the benefits of e-commerce, the ability to connect unique designs with far away clients makes independent business opportunity possible for a wide variety of digital artisans. Currently most of these business’ are confined to areas where 3D printers are sold, which is mostly America and parts of Europe, but with the regional interest in Asia and India specifically on the rise, the possibilities are still fertile.

Already companies like SOLS, Matter Labs and Shapeways are emerging players in the western market who are providing the benefits of 3D mass customisation to their customers. From mobile phone cases to orthotics for doctors, these companies are catering directly to the needs of everyone by reducing the cost of personalised products.

Machine made body parts bring us one step closer to moving beyond the weakness of flesh.

Normally doctors would require access to a USD $25,000 (Rs. 15,50,000) 3D imaging machines to provide their patients with custom made foot orthotics, but now with a free iPad app and 3D scanning, they can do the same for less than USD $500 (Rs.30,000). And even though high grade prosthetics are still made in better quality using injection moulding techniques, those made by 3D printers are a more cost effective solution for those who can’t afford the former. In time, SOLS - a company that creates these orthotics - is looking to develop 3D printing methods so that within five years the gap in quality is bridged using advanced 3D printers.

Hobbyists use - The Maker Movement

Just as computers that were once confined to giant rooms became portable devices in user’s pockets, the hope for any cutting edge technology is the same - to become part of the household lives of its users. Sometimes this shift takes decades to happen but with 3D printing, the diehard enthusiasm of individuals and small groups is driving consumerisation faster than ever before.

The Maker movement as it is known consists of do-it-yourself enthusiasts and active designers who believe in the potential of 3D printing and are actively pursuing it in their day to day lives. Many of the individuals are hobbyists who consider the freedom and creative innovation of 3D printing to be a liberating form of personal expression as well as a possible source of personal income. The small scale community of Maker’s is found even in India as they get together for Maker Meets, the most recent of which took place in Bangalore. And as the prices of home use 3D printers falls within the same range as personal computers more and more hobbyists are becoming part of this movement.

Home and domestic users of 3D printers are able to make an assortment of objects for fun, pleasure and sometimes money. So far the types of objects that have been made by individuals is staggering and include things such as functional clocks, jewellery, household parts like door knobs, coat hooks, bags and even food items. Certain popular instances also include homemade prosthetics, complex toys like abstract Rubik’s cubes.

We can look forward to moving away from awkward family photos to awkward family sculptures. 3D printed of course.

The cheapest models of 3D printers priced between USD $100 to USD $500 (cheaper than an iPhone) are being used by individuals for personal experimentation. Using these items people are able to create objects used in day to day life such as combs, key copies, phone covers, cutlery and anything you can imagine. At the current stage of product development and cost effectiveness, the restraints are limited to materials used (mainly plastics) and the size of the object.

Whether you print a game gun or a real gun, with the internet the freedom is in your hands.

The Maker movement is mainly interested in the possibilities of 3D printing and seeks to normalise its presence in the consumer world. As the coming decade comes to an end, patents on advanced 3D printing methods will expire and a wave of multi-material, large scale home printing options will become accessible to the public. The Maker movement’s key priority is to encourage self-reliance with respect to personal goods and the learning of the necessary tools to make it happen; from traditional methods to 3D printing. But only with the latter have they seen a remarkable interest and growth in the proliferation of DIY manufacturing.

Educational use

Outside of the fragmented personal and individual user demographic of 3D printers lie the larger not-for-profit institutions such as schools, universities, research labs and government agencies. The real level of innovation that is exciting and relatable takes place at these places where imagination meets resources, and the willingness to experiment. In fact, schools and universities are not only one of the earliest adopters of the technology but critical contributors in the development of the technology itself.

Using the novelty appeal of a 3D printing demonstrations teachers are able to cultivate hands-on learning and explore areas of conceptualisation, design, technology application, applied sciences and small scale manufacturing. For students in the field of architecture, multimedia, arts and engineers, the use of 3D printers greatly enhances the learning experience as students are able to create functional scale models of their ideas quickly and accurately For students of art, graphic design and artisan skills such as sculpting and pottery, 3D printing opens up a whole new world of exploration. Projects that would normally take months or years to ideate, conceptualise, draft, mould, redraft, remould and prototype can be done in a much shorter period of time. The physical applications of the project are transferred in to compute aided design programs and are easier to augment, correct and improve before they are made into three dimensional realities.

3D printers in the classroom open up a whole new world of learning for students.

The most fundamental benefit of 3D printing in the classrooms is that students are taking an active interest in aspects of computer sciences. Since the current use of 3D printers requires at least a basic understanding of CAD programs, students are optimistically taking to freeware like Sketch Up to learn how to create simulated versions of their imaginative models. With an increased interest this pathway is leading to a more active engagement with 3D modelling software’s and CAD based programming as well.

Medical Use

The use of 3D printing in bio-sciences is still very much in its infancy but theoretical research is still on-going, to such a degree that scientists have figured out how to print blood vessels using this new technology. But in active practice 3D printing is used in only three categories of health care; prosthetics, medical devices and human tissue.

Prosthetics or “scaffolding” as it is commonly known is already said to have been revolutionized by 3D printing. The ability to cheaply and effectively manufacture join replacements has already been proven. One of the most commonly implemented procedures is knee replacement printing which takes all the advantages of 3D printing. Normally, knee replacement is done from a selection of six base models that doctors have created but with 3D printing, the replacement piece is printed to custom fit the patient who needs it.

By making each replacement knee as unique as the person it belongs to, doctors are able to provide a much better quality of life to their patients. Patients don’t lose any bone in the surgery and are able to recover faster and acquire better functionality from the implant. The custom designed bone piece is proven to be stronger, more flexible and a greatly more accurate mimic of the original bone piece.

Knees and bone joint replacements are identical to the ones that are being replaced.

The category of medical devices has also witnessed a revolution of its own with 3D printers having become the norm for most hearing aids that are being created. Since each hearing aid device is meant to fit an individual’s ear, the ability to craft one based on scans from 3D printers makes this technology an obvious choice. Instead of having to spent time casting handmade ear moulds, a 3D scanner is able to save money to source the data required by the 3D printer. The time required is also reduced from over a week down to a single day. In the same way dental implants are also becoming faster, easier and more pain free to manufacture. One of the most revolutionary uses of 3D printing was in mid-2013 when doctors created a customised splint for a new born infant who had suffered a collapsed trachea. The procedure relied on scans and 3D printing, which saved the child’s life.

Experiments to make a bionic ear using 3D printing are already underway and successful.

The third category of medical usage has been very controversial as it is involved with directly creating human tissues. The initial stages lead to the printing of meat tissue of animals that was considered suitable for eating and could be useful towards the world’s hunger problems but the real victory has come with functional organic live human tissue.

Scientists have used 3D printers to create functional liver tissue in the lab which are reactive for drug testing and surgical practice. Due to the ethical and moral concerns over the application of the technology, the move towards replacement organs is still slow but is predicted to be a reality some point in the future.

Space Exploration

Just as the last big boom in technological innovation came at the hands of space exploration, it isn’t surprising that space is proving to be the next testing ground for 3D printing as well. With NASA and private business’ partnering to install 3D printing facilities in the International Space Station, dreamers believe it will be a critical step towards colonisation in the long run.

So far everything that humanity has sent into space has been made on Earth, it may no longer be the case once the goal of 3D printing in space is realised. Objects launched from Earth are not only meant to function in zero gravity but also withstand the journey to space which involves launch vibrations and g-forces. But by manufacturing objects directly in zero-gravity a whole new range of functionality, flexibility and utility may be achieved.

3D printing in space is already a reality and marks a big step towards space colonisation.

By taking advantage of the zero-gravity or micro-gravity environment, engineers and designers can create objects that would not be functional on Earth but perfectly efficient in space. In addition to which, the on-demand nature of 3D printing would put to ease any concerns of spare parts, repairs, costs and even food. But so far these attempts are in the experimental stages, the creation of a microgravity friendly 3D printer has itself been a struggle as it needs to be compact, secure, safe, launch ready and materials adaptable.

After numerous failed prototypes a solution has been achieved and is in the process of implementation. Designed by “Made in Space”, the 3D printer has been approved by NASA engineers and will be sent to space in 2014 to manufacture the first object outside of Earth. Plans to launch an updated advanced version of the next generation 3D printer by “Made in Space” is already in play with a scheduled 2015 launch date.