The recent hype over 3D printing, also known as additive manufacturing, shoudln’t fool you into thinking it's new. This process – which consists of printing layer upon layer of a material, usually plastic, to make an object out of a 3D digital drawing – has been around since the eighties.
"The technology is quite mature," Mitch Free, CEO of industrial 3D printing company CloudDDM, told the Daily News. "Good marketing has brought it to the public awareness." Free said the reason 3D printers aren't commonplace is much of the technology had been road-blocked by patents up until a few years ago. While there have been recent innovations in medicine and design, Free said it will be a while before people are driving 3D-printed cars or replacing store-bought products with ones printed at home. "It's not a technology barrier, it's just that the economics don't work," he said. "It takes too long and it's too expensive." Perhaps 3D printing hasn't sparked a revolution, but Free said there've been "new and exciting" developments in the materials printers use and the way the printed objects can be applied. So, here are five fields that a reaping the benefits of this technology.
Earlier this year, surgeons at Nicklaus Children's Hospital in Miami used a 3D printer to make an exact replica of a five-year-old girl's heart. Mia Gonzalez underwent surgery to correct a malformation in her aorta and doctors attributed part of the operation's success to being able to practice on the heart model. "Without the model, I would have been less certain about (operating on Mia) and that would have led me naturally to make a larger incision that could possibly cause more pain and a longer recovery time," Dr. Redmond Burke told CNN. Advances have also been made in bioprinting, which uses a so-called ink made of cells and human tissue. A Sept. 2015 survey of 800 communication and tech experts found 76% believe the first transplant of a 3D-printed liver would happen by 2025.
If cities follow Chinese company WinSun's lead, 3D printers could be used to build low-income housing fast and inexpensively. Last year, the engineering and design company built 10 3D-printed concrete houses in one day. Each cost $4,800. Then in January, the company took 3D printing technology to new heights by building a five-story apartment building and a 1,100 square meter villa. The structures were made by printing large sections of the building and then assembling them. The "ink" used was made from fiberglass, streel, cement, binder and recycled rubble, according to a WinSun release. The company plans to open 3D printer plants in 20 countries within the next few years, The Guardian reported. Architects are also turning to 3D printing to make their elaborate design dreams a reality. "I think (3D printing)is as fundamental a shift as the elevator was in raising our cities," Adam Kushner, president of D-Shape Enterprises, told The Guardian.
A 7-year-old California girl made headlines last April for her 3D-printed prosthetic hand. The brightly-colored prosthesis — which weighed one pound and cost $50 to make — represented a breakthrough in cheap, lightweight mechanical hands that are easy for children to use. Kids usually outgrow their prosthetic limbs within a year, so being able to affordably replace them could revolutionize the market. Pets are milking this technology too. Last year, a rescue dog born with deformed front legs was able to run like the wind on 3D-printed prosthetics.
Free's company, which opened in May, prints pieces used in everything from voting machines to planes. He said 3D printing has been a game-changer for companies that had products in mind but couldn't sell enough of them to justify industrial scale manufacturing. "We've opened up a whole sector for low volume products that weren't viable," he said. For example, medical devices that would have cost too much to produce en masse can now be printed out. Researchers can try out, say, surgical instruments without the burden of high costs. Same goes for companies that want to test out prototypes. They can print out two or three samples and collect user data before committing to a specific design, Free said.
5. The environment
Coral reefs are key to a burgeoning marine life. But, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, about 70% of the world's coral reefs have been damaged or destroyed by development and pollution. A company in Bahrain is countering that destruction by installing 3D-printed reefs along the coasts of the Persian Gulf.