3D printers construct three-dimensional objects by printing thin layers of material until the object is complete. From toys to medical supplies to entire rockets, the almost no limit to what you can create with 3D printing with enough imagination and the right starting materials. For the 15 years since the tech became widely available, people have built some truly unbelievable things with 3D printers. Here are some 3D-printed builds that will absolutely blow your mind.
3D-Printing Builds Cheap, Sustainable School Buildings
In 2021, a group of children in a small village in the southeastern African nation of Malawi sat down to their lessons in a school unlike any that’s ever been built. The first-of-its-kind school was 3D printed in just 15 hours. Almost overnight, children who had been forced to walk miles to the nearest school could suddenly get an education in their own village. The school was built by a Kenya-based 3D printing construction company that builds schools and affordable housing units from sustainable materials.
3D printing is changing the way construction works. The tech allows buildings to be constructed at lightning speed at lower costs and with a smaller carbon footprint. Many buildings can be built in under a day, compared to weeks or months using traditional construction. And all that is needed is the blueprint and a few trained people to supervise the construction. They can also be used to rebuild from the remnants of natural disasters and war. In the war-ravaged Ukrainian city of Lviv, the rubble of bombed buildings will be recycled to 3D print new homes and schools. Some cities have launched programs to 3D-print affordable housing or build homes for growing homeless populations.
Our skin might seem relatively simple compared to organs like the heart and brain. But our largest organ is surprisingly complex and delicate, making it especially difficult to repair. Modern medicine has advanced a lot in the last few decades. But replacing damaged skin remains a long, painful process with inconsistent results. Synthetic skin for wound healing is a growing field that is limited by the ability to replicate the complexity of the real thing. By contrast, 3D-printed skin can be built from a “bio-in” containing living cells along with natural proteins and biopolymers like those produced by the body. This bio-ink is used to replicate real multilayered skin in structure, flexibility, and functionality.
3D-printed skin can be transplanted in the same way that grafted or donated skin is without the risk of skin graft complications or rejected host tissue. And there’s almost no limit to what 3D-printed skin can do. Some researchers are developing seamless 3D-printed skin that can be molded to fit even complicated body parts like a glove. Others are working to print new skin made from a patient’s own cells. Just last year, an ear 3D-printed from the patient’s own cells was successfully transplanted on a woman with a small, malformed ear due to a rare birth defect. Ten other people in the clinical trial are expected to receive similar transplants.
A little box that can print whatever food you’re craving. That may sound like something out of a Star Trek, but it’s real and could one day be in every kitchen. 3D printers have been used to print a variety of foods, from simple nutrient powder-based bricks to intricately-flavored desserts that reveal a new taste in each bite. Early versions of this tech printed basic (not exactly appetizing) pizzas and chocolate bars. But 3D-printed food has advanced to use elaborate ingredients in truly creative ways. Some research teams are using the tech to produce nutrient-balanced food that can be used in extreme situations like combat and space travel.
When synced with body sensors, the printers could potentially make food that perfectly matches an individual’s nutritional needs. Even some innovative fine dining kitchens are embracing 3D-printed food. The technology allows chefs to use unconventional ingredients to create flavors and textures that were once limited to their imaginations. And it’s not just new tastes that are being explored. 3D printing is also being used to produce food that is more palatable to people with conditions that make them sensitive to certain food textures and those with difficulty swallowing.
Anyone Can Make Beautiful Music With 3D-Printed Instruments
Music may be the universal language, but as a hobby, it’s very expensive and only accessible to those who can afford the instruments. A quality instrument can run anywhere from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars, which is out of reach for many people. 3D-printed musical instruments could help change that. One former musician started 3D printing string instruments after he had to give up playing due to the cost. With 3D printing, musical instruments can be produced in under a day at the cost of around $100 – 200. That will open up the world of music to millions of people who would otherwise never be able to afford it.
Cost isn’t the only benefit of 3D printing. Instrument makers have found that technology allows them to produce products with a higher degree of precision and consistency. On the other hand, 3D printing also makes it possible for musicians to produce custom instruments that are unique to them. Some creatives are even attempting to print musical instruments that produce entirely new sounds. Meanwhile, 3D printing technology is also being used to produce working replicas of obsolete musical instruments of the past.
Perfectly Color-Matched Prosthetic Eyes Can Be Made in Half the Time
A year ago, an IT engineer in London became the first person to wear a 3D-printed prosthetic eye. Compared to the traditional acrylic prosthetics that the man had been using, the 3D-printed eye was far more realistic, almost indistinguishable from a natural eye. In addition, while traditional prosthetic eyes are typically hand-painted, the new 3D-printed eyes are color-calibrated to mimic a real eye perfectly. Even better, the model for the 3D print only requires a completely noninvasive 2-second eye scan, which is considerably more comfortable than the eye socket mold needed for older prosthetic eyes.
3D-printed eyes are also much faster to produce. A traditional acrylic eye can take six weeks to produce compared to only a few hours to 3D print one. Perhaps even more exciting is the potential for 3D-printed bionic eyes that can actually see. Experimental bionic eyes exist that can partially restore some vision, allowing people with visual impairments to see lights and shapes. As the tech advances, 3D printing could make producing bionic eyes a faster and more inexpensive process.
The fashion industry was a relatively early adopter of 3D-printer tech, recognizing its ability to create unique textiles. 3D-printed fabrics can be designed with qualities that would be difficult, costly, and time-consuming to produce by other methods, such as breathable, wrinkle-resistant textiles and feather-light fabrics. Plus, 3D printing makes it possible to weave technology into fashion like never before. Imagine textiles with thread that produces light, smart fabric that responds to your body temperature, and clothes with electric fibers woven into the seams.
Another bonus of 3D printing clothing is that it has the potential to cut down on the massive impact the fashion industry has on the environment. Each year, the industry produces nearly 100 billion tons of textile waste, as trucks full of cheaply made clothing end up in the dump. Around 10 percent of global greenhouse emissions, 10 percent of microplastics in the ocean, and 20 percent of global water waste are linked to clothing production and disposal. By contrast, 3D-printed fashion is being produced with little to no waste, made from recycled and biodegradable materials. Whether it’s shoes made from recycled plastic bottles or purses made from animal dung (yes, you read that right), 3D-printed fashion is literally turning trash into treasure.
Some Companies Are Designing 3D Printed Rocket Fuel
Modern rocket engines are far more powerful than those of the past, but they still rely on highly volatile rocket fuel. The engines are so unpredictable that unexpected explosions while developing and testing rockets are considered business as usual. 3D printing is changing that by producing solid rocket fuel that is safer, more stable, and less volatile than other rocket fuel. 3D-printed fuel and engines are also much lighter, an important quality in rockets that are meant to be propelled into space.
In addition to increased safety, the entire process of producing 3D-printed rocket fuel is faster, more precise, and less expensive than traditional means. For this reason, researchers are using 3D printing to boost the performance of hybrid fuel rockets that are more environmentally friendly but lack the power of traditional rockets. And it isn’t just rocket fuel that’s being 3D printed. Last year, several companies successfully launched entirely 3D-printed rockets. With its lower cost and less need for manpower, 3D-printing technology has opened up space exploration to smaller companies, opening the floodgates to innovative and industry-changing ideas.
3D-Printed Organ Transplants May Be Just Around the Corner
Organ transplants revolutionized medicine and allowed people to survive for decades with diseases that were once 100 percent fatal. But the demand for organs far exceeds the supply. In the U.S., the average wait time for an organ donation is three to five years, and 17 people die every day waiting for an organ. 3D printing may allow us to produce functional organs from living cells. Unlike donor organs, 3D-printed organs printed from a patient’s own cells would be a perfect match, reducing the risk of organ rejection and the need to remain on the immune system suppressing drugs for the rest of their life. Maybe that sounds far-fetched. But, less than a century ago, organ transplants were considered the stuff of fantasy.
We haven’t quite reached the point where we can 3D print functional organs for transplant, but we’re getting close. To date, researchers have living 3D-printed organs, including kidneys, eyes, skin, and hearts, from human cells, although none have been transplanted in patients. 3D-printed organs made from living cells are already being used for medical research (more on that later). Researchers have also had success transplanting 3D-printed organs into animals. One group 3D-printed ovaries and implanted them in infertile mice. Three of the seven mice that received transplants were able to get pregnant and give birth successfully. It’s only a matter of time before the technology makes the leap to human patients.
Drugs Are Being Tested On Real Human Tissue Printed From Live Cells
How do we know that a new drug will be safe for patients? Before any medication can make its way to pharmacy shelves, it has to go through rigorous testing in animals and cells in Petri dishes. After passing those tests, the drug goes through several rounds of closely monitored and carefully controlled clinical trials in humans. This drug development process can take years or even decades. The average time for a new drug to make it from a laboratory bench to patients is 10 to 15 years. The use of 3D-printed human tissue to test promising new drugs could help get them to patients faster.
Researchers use 3D-printed organs to test how the drug will behave in the body and detect potential safety issues or dangerous side effects. 3D-printed human tissue and organs could eliminate the need for animal testing, which would save many animal lives. The tissue also dramatically speeds up the drug testing timeline. Animal testing is a lengthy, often fruitless task, with 90 percent of the drugs that pass animal testing ultimately failing in humans. Testing in human organs from the start allows scientists to figure out if a drug will be safe and effective earlier, potentially saving years of work, billions of dollars, and countless patient lives.
Cheap, Custom 3D Printed Prosthetics Are Already Changing Patient’s Lives
One area where 3D printing has advanced rapidly is the limb prostheticsfield. The cost of a prosthetic limb can range from $5,000 to $80,000, depending on the quality. For growing children who need frequent upgrades, those expenses can pile up fast. Enter 3D printing technology, which has the ability to produce prosthetics faster and cheaper than traditional means. For example, a basic prosthetic arm may cost a few thousand dollars and take up to six weeks to produce. An equivalent 3D-printed arm can be built for under $500 in less than a day.
Even better, 3D-printed prosthetics can be customized to meet each patient’s needs and are often lighter and more comfortable than other types of prosthetics. This helps patients heal and adapt to their new limbs with greater ease. The use of 3D printing also allows for the integration of sensors that improve prosthetic performance and comfort. These sensors can help the prosthetic adjust to a patient’s body based on what activities they are performing with the prosthetic limb.
3D-Printed Prosthetics Give Injured Animals A New Lease on Life
Humans aren’t the only ones benefiting from 3D printing technology. Dogs, cats, horses, and birds who were injured or born with missing limbs have been able to receive 3D-printed prosthetics. Some animals have gotten their 3D-printed wheels to help them get around faster. A toucan received a life-saving, 3D-printed beak prosthetic after losing its beak to skin cancer. An alligator whose tail was cut off by poachers received a giant 3D-printed tail that moves perfectly with its body and even allows him to swim.
Perhaps one of the most impressive 3D animal prosthetics cases is that of Fred the Tortoise, who lost most of its shell in a forest fire in its native home in Brazil. A team of artists pored over dozens of pictures of healthy tortoise shells to design a 3D model just for Fred. The final 3D-printed shell had to be printed in four parts, each of which took over 50 hours to build, to ensure that the prosthetic shell was as sturdy and comfortable as the real thing. When the pieces were fitted together like a puzzle, the result was the first functional tortoise shell ever 3D printed.
A brand new sportscar or speedboat may be way out of your price range. But, with a 3D printer, you might be able to make the vehicle of your dreams a reality. Some car companies are embracing 3D printing tech to build prototypes, produce lighter car parts, test engines, and aid in manufacturing. Czinger made history with its superfast 3D-printed hybrid sportscar. The record-breaking car will run you about $2 million. Of course, there are much cheaper 3D printing options. People around the globe are using 3D printers to build their dream cars at a fraction of the cost of real things. Take the father and son team that built a custom Lamborghini in their garage for only $20,000.
In 2019, the University of Maine launched a 3D-printed boat so large that it broke the record for the largest 3D-printed object up to that point. Newer 3D-printed boats are more focused on performance and sustainability than size. Some companies even recycle old boats to 3D-print new ones in a zero-waste process. 3D-printed bikes are on a similarly sustainable path, with multiple companies dedicated to printing high-quality bikes from entirely recyclable materials. Beyond sustainability, 3D-printed bikes are also proving to be capable of exceptional performance. In fact, the current record holder for the fastest bike in the world was 3D printed.
If you’ve ever wondered what it would be like to try on a different face, this Japanese 3D-printing company has got you covered. The company specializes in masks that are so hyperrealistic they’re almost unnerving. The masks are created by taking a detailed face scan that is perfectly replicated in three dimensions. Glass eyes lend an eerily life-like appearance to the completed masks. The masks are so realistic that they may even be able to trick AI face recognition.
The mask maker is also the owner of a theater supply shop. He got the idea to create uncanny face masks as a fun dress-up accessory. The masks are expensive and are made from inflexible plastic, which makes them impractical for anything other than a bit of fun. But for people who want to take their Halloween costumes or cosplay to the next level, actors performing on stage, or even people who just want to look like someone else for the day, the masks could offer a one-of-a-kind experience. Still, it’s pretty easy to imagine how the masks could be used for nefarious purposes.
3D-Printed Artwork Lets Visually Impaired People “See” Art
Seeing a masterpiece like the Mona Lisa or Starry Night is an awe-inspiring experience. 3D printing is making it possible for people who are blind and visually impaired to join in that experience for the first time. Museums around the world use 3D printers to produce highly-detailed representations of visual art that people who can’t see are able to touch. This brilliant intersection of technology and art takes a painting like the Mona Lisa and creates a 3D relief print that allows the audience to feel the brushstrokes, shadows, and highlights with their fingertips.
3D printing also allows experts to produce detailed recreations of damaged or lost works of art. For example, two researchers used AI and 3D printers to recreate a lost Van Gogh painting that the artist painted over more than a century ago. Similarly, a Picasso painting that was hidden under another of his works was revealed with 3D printing. And, perhaps unsurprisingly, many innovative artists are using 3D printing to create works that defy the imagination. Sculptures are reshaping the art world with sculptures that could not physically exist without 3D printing technology.
Expecting Parents Can Hold Their Baby Before It’s Born
One of the exciting moments for soon-to-be parents is the first time they see their baby in a sonogram. More advanced ultrasound technology allows parents to see highly detailed 3D images of their little one. When combined with 3D printing, the tech can produce a 3D model of the baby that parents can actually hold in their hands. One company even lets you print a tiny 3D model of your baby that you can wear or use as a keychain. That’s quite the step up from the blurry sonogram images of yore.
3D-printed sonograms are just a novelty. For blind and visually impaired parents, the models are a whole new way to “see” their unborn baby. In a heartwarming viral video, an expectant mother who is blind is able to touch an ultrasound 3D-printed model of her son’s face. This type of ultrasonic 3D printing technology is also being used to do everything from targeting cancer tumors and kidney stones to the production of “impossible” geometric structures.
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