When we received a 3D printer at work, I literally jumped up and down. I started out by printing anything that I thought looked cool: little robots with articulated joints, skulls and kittens (my favorite things), tiny octopuses, toys basically; knick-knacks.
After the novelty wore off a bit, I was challenged to print items that were a bit more useful (not that tiny kitten statues aren’t useful); even items that could help people. I printed a finger brace, a tape dispenser, a ball and socket joint. This led me to wonder what other people were printing, and how they were leveraging the technology.
So, I present a smattering of the useful, heartwarming, quirky, and incomprehensibly amazing recent innovations in 3D printing.
1. Printing Human Ears (Using Cows and Rats!)
At Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, a working artificial human ear has been 3D-printed. When the project first began, the bioengineering team was faced with the challenge of finding a printer that could use a syringe as an extruder. Since none existed, they built one.
Using their own in-house technology, they were able to print a scaffold of sorts using collagen from rat tails that the ear would be able to grow on. Next, they formed the ear using an injectable gel made of living cells harvested from the cow ears onto the scaffold. The final product is flexible, and acts just as a natural ear would.
Over a three-month period, the cartilage thrives and replaces the collagen as it breaks down. In the end, you’re left with what looks like an opaque, white, human ear.
Before this technology, replacement ears were constructed from a stiffer material, or from a patient’s own rib. This would be very painful, and often wouldn’t look natural or perform well. Personally, even though it’s a little weird, I’d take a part-cow/rat ear over them taking part of my rib. Soon, though, the lab will be working with human cartilage cells – essentially eliminating the possibility of rejection.
2. e-NABLE: Prosthetics for Underserved Communities
My intern just ended her time working with me on some 3D printing projects. One of the things she was most passionate about was a group called e-NABLE. e-NABLE is an open source community of volunteers around the world that matches you with a local child in need of a prosthetic. What’s awesome is that anyone with a 3D printer, or access to 3D design software, can help out! Each hand is custom-designed for the child. It can be superhero themed, have lights inside, and be any color.
I was lucky enough to be able to meet some members of e-NABLE and test out some recently printed prosthetic hands at the MakerFaire in Rochester, NY. These things aren’t just for show; I was able to pick up a full water bottle with the one I was using. Small grips added to the fingertips made this possible. What I think is really great about this technology is that it’s inexpensive. Kids play rough, and they grow quickly. It makes more sense to outfit them with a $10 prosthetic hand than an expensive prosthetic that they could break or grow out of within the year.
3. 3D-Printed Prosthetics for our Pets
Groups like E-Nable are working to print custom prosthetic hands for children in need. Impressively, people are also keeping our furry and scaly friends in mind too! Meet Derby, the dog who was born with front legs that were a bit different than other dogs’. This high energy pup needed more than a set of wheels to help him get around. His owner, who happened to work in the 3D printing industry, began to design a better solution. Derby now uses his “elbow cup” prosthetics comfortably. You can watch a video of Derby here.
A 12- year-old box turtle affectionately named Stumpy benefited from 3D printing too. This time though, the prosthetic didn’t come from a lab or a university – it was 3D-printed in a 5th grade classroom at May Howard Elementary in Savannah Georgia. After weeks of researching a design that would allow Stumpy to navigate comfortably, they decided on a ball-caster, “designed to have a ball encaged within a four-pronged system.” Basically, the other legs would do all the work while this one rolled.
4. An Aesthetically-Pleasing Vacuum Cleaner
Have you ever been cleaning your home and suddenly realized you have nowhere to store those flowers your many admirers gave you? Well, Hans Fouche has you covered. You might remember him as the man from South Africa who designed and printed his own working lawn mower.
He designed a vacuum cleaner that doubles as a vase. The entire thing cost him about $5.40 in materials and took just four hours to print using his custom build 3D printer. For comparison, the 3D printer I use (and most 3D printers on the market) take about three hours to print something 2″x3″. I can’t say I think it would have a place in my house, but it’s definitely a cool concept that blends form and function.
5. SOMEONE MADE AN ACTUAL BUILDING
Excuse my excitement, but I couldn’t believe this story. Shanghai, China-based company, WinSun Decoration Design Engineering Co. 3D printed an entire apartment building. This six-story structure measures about 1,100 square meters in size. The machine they used was 20 feet tall, 33 feet wide, and 132 feet long. Obviously, the structure had to be printed piece by piece.
This story also really impressed me in terms of sustainability. The medium was made from recycled construction materials, such as concrete, fiberglass, and sand. This results in a structure that is self-insulating and resistant to strong earthquakes. According to the company, this resulted in a savings of 60% of the materials typically needed to construct a home. 80% less labor is needed, and it takes 30% less time than traditional building methods. Not every single piece of the structure was 3D printed. For safety reasons and functionality, steel rebar, pipelines, and glass windows were still used.
I probably won’t stop printing tiny statues of small animals. But, as different types of materials for 3D printing are introduced (recent ones include chocolate, stainless steel, and magnetic filaments), I’m excited to see how I can utilize them to improve upon what we’ve already imagined.