You've probably heard of 3D Printing, but you may not know just how far it's come in the past few years, or how close to home it is (very literally in the case of 3D printed buildings). But the image of that old Canon on your desk that never has enough ink is quite far from the largest and most complex printers that resemble cranes and can knock up a small house in 24 hours. So let's take a look at what 3D printing is all about, and how you could be wearing, using or living in something printed sooner than you think.
In simple terms a 3D printer builds a three-dimensional object, usually by adding material layer by layer in succession, in order to create complex shapes or geometries. It is controlled by a computer and requires either a 3D model or a CAD (Computer-aided design) model to produce the final product. It has been around since the 1980s, but only recently has it really taken off into the world of medicine, construction and even fashion - so let's take a look at 5 of the most interesting 3D printed objects around the world today.
3D printed trainers, sounds pretty Back to the Future (although the self-tying trainers did get released by sporting-rivals Nike early this year) but it's actually just the soles that have been printed and it signals not only a step into the future for the fun of it, but a more sustainable and faster future for manufacturing shoes. Adidas collaborated with Carbon 3D, a software company that manufactures and develops 3D printers, to create 100,000 pairs of Futurecraft 4D trainers that were released in January 2018 at $300 a pair.
Although you may gasp in horror and clutch your wallet to your chest, in the world of sneakers this isn't that extortionate, and the price is likely to go down in the future as 3D printing soles could be one more step towards 'zero-inventory' ranges that are created as and when they're needed, reducing costs and the usual time taken from design to manufacture to store shelves. It also makes small batches economical and the sole design easier to prototype and improve quickly, making the future of trainers look more comfortable than ever.
Unless you went into hiding over Easter this year or thought April 2019 was a good time to throw away your phone and detox from all things Brexit (we wouldn't blame you), you would have heard about the tragic fire that raged through the iconic Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris that led to the collapse of the roof, spire and extensive damage to the intricate stone masonry inside and out. The world responded to the tragedy quickly with pledges to donate reaching over a billion euros (although only around 10% has been collected to date) and debate was quickly sparked over how best to rebuild the architectural treasure, with 3D printing being thrown in as an option at an early stage.
After the re-design was opened up as a competition to architects all over the world, companies started coming in with all sorts of weird and wonderful ideas including an all glass roof and light beam towards the sky, but Dutch company Concr3de didn't wait for approval before testing out their small Armadillo White 3D printer. They created a replacement gargoyle using a mixture of limestone and ash, which could be collected from materials found after the fire raged through Notre Dame, by using 3D scans of Notre Dame that have been made throughout the past 25 years, an undertaking that will doubtful prove invaluable as and when the re-build starts to be designed.
The printer is specifically adjusted to work with stone and similar materials, and shows how beautiful replicas can be created from materials previously presumed as useless. It would be a creative and innovative way to incorporate the old Notre Dame into the new, by using modern technology to celebrate the traditional designs and perhaps please modernists and traditionalists alike.
It was 2014 when Chinese company WinSun dominated headlines with the world's first 3D printed house, and five years on they haven't stopped there. With office buildings in Dubai in 2016, bus stops churned out in one, and a collaboration with Tesla's Elon Musk to create Hyperloop tunnels on the way, there isn't much that seems too much for the world of 3D Construction. Although they're not the only company getting involved, they're a good example of what can be achieved and where the technology is taking us.
In 2017 Russian company Apis Cor developed a 3D printer that takes 30 minutes to set up, with their own software and control program, and that can complete a house in a mere 24 hours for $10,000. They're pushing ever onwards and upwards by creating 3D printing technology for building on Mars and showing that even the sky isn't the limit for house building technology.
It's not only on different planets that this leap is exciting, here on earth people are in dire need of affordable housing all around the world, and 3D printing could be part of the solution. With reducing waste of materials, to increased speed and lowered costs there are a plethora of advantages that can hopefully make its way into the lives of those who need a roof over their head the most.
A $5 3D printed heart does more than look pretty cool, it could actually save your life, as a Doctor at a Children's Hospital in Kentucky discovered, when the 3D reproduced heart of one of his young patients showed a rare valve deformity that couldn't be discerned with the traditional imaging studies. This is literally life-changing technology and is also used to help patients begin to process and accept their own heart problems, by being able to physically see their own heart they can more-easily process and understand what's happening to them, and lead them to take ownership of their disease.
This is all thanks to Michael Winlker, Associate Professor of Radiology and Cardiology at the University of Kentucky College of Medicine, who began the process of printing the $5 hearts to help physicians with fitting new heart valves and stents. The problem surrounding the surgery is the difficulty of knowing the exact size and shape of each individuals heart which lead to a lot of guessing by Doctors, and the wasting of tens of thousands of dollars and lengthily procedures. But the 3D hearts are a precise pre-surgical tool that helps the Doctors know exactly what to expect and to help to save lives accordingly.
It's heart-warming to know that saving lives doesn't have to be expensive, just innovative, and with more people like Michael in the world we could be on the way to save more lives than ever with technology we already have.
So trainers, houses and plastic hearts were cool but seemed all within the realms of possibility, but how does a 3D meal sound? Spanish company Natural Machines have made this a reality with the Foodini, a 3D Food Printer that first hit headlines in November 2014 with machines for professional kitchen users, and which is now available commercially (for an eye-watering $4000). All you need to do is prepare your own fresh ingredients, pop them into the stainless steel food capsules in the printer and then watch your creation appear before your eyes.
But this machine is not just for the novelty of being able to print a pizza. The creators of Foodini have worked with Icelandic-based food research institute Matis to help promote seafood sustainability and reduce seafood waste by using cut offs and trimmings, that are usually discarded, to make beautiful edible creations. In fact, one of Foodini's main selling points is its ability to create precise and complex food designs that just wouldn't be possible by hand, tapping into the high-end food market that specialises in unique and visually stunning presentation of food.
So, from footwear to fish we've travelled the world and seen the future of 3D printing is a lot closer than you think, and a lot more exiting than you might have imagined. At first glance food or a house isn't something you would think could be programmed into a computer and popped out hours or minutes later, however that's the reality that we now face, and one that aims to save money, resources and time. With hearts and houses also having the potential to save lives, 3D printing is a technology that we should take seriously, and hopefully into the future.