3D printing is a remarkable technology. Really, if someone had said 20 years ago that we’d soon be able to use printers to create complex 3D objects out of anything from plastics to metals, it might have sounded almost insane. And yet, we can now do just that thanks to the remarkable advances we’ve seen with this technology in recent years.
As exciting as this is though, there’s almost surprisingly little attention paid to the specific things 3D printing can do. At this point, there are far too many applications to list in one place, but from general capabilities to specific uses, these are – in our estimation – some of the very coolest things 3D printing can do….
1. Recreate Exact Anatomy
Generally, the coolest thing about 3D printing might just be that it’s never approximate. It’s a computer-driven process that essentially comes down to math and measurements, meaning that objects come out of the printer exactly as intended, barring a malfunction of some kind. It’s this precision that is behind some of the technology’s most interesting applications in medicine, where it can do everything from producing an exact human skeleton for use in classrooms, to creating replica organs that may soon be suitable for transplant.
Then again, not all anatomy-related applications have to be medical in nature. In fact they don’t even necessarily have to concern human beings! You might have seen a recent article here discussing the discovery of a new species of dinosaur – one that was previously unknown, and which we don’t have full, exact fossils of. So why couldn’t 3D printing be used to create an exact, to-scale model for exhibit in a museum or science center of some kind? Naturally it wouldn’t quite be the real thing, but through this example we can understand the broader uses for anatomy-related printing to educate and intrigue us.
2. Enable New Artists
When you really think about it, it isn’t very often we see an entire new medium of artistic expression created. But that’s just what 3D printing is! We actually started to see hints of the technology’s potential in the artistic world several years ago, when 3D printing was a brand new phenomenon. For instance, Bored Panda posted an article about 3D-printed versions of classical paintings way back in 2016, noting that such pieces gave the blind a way to “see” the art. Since then though, it’s become clear that 3D printing is also becoming a medium for original art. Whether you want to refer to it as a way to print a painting, or a new form of sculpting, the technology gives artists the ability to create digital work that can then become physical. Don’t be surprised if in a few years’ time some of our most impressive contemporary artists are working with 3D printers.
3. Empower New Startups
Just as 3D printing is creating new avenues for modern artists, it’s also vastly expanding the potential for startup businesses – or at least, any such businesses that seek to deal with physical products of any kind. Printing out an entire product line through one’s own 3D printer may be somewhat ambitious, not to mention time-consuming. But with on-demand 3D printing services now accessible to the public, people running startups essentially have a whole new way to manufacture goods.
To give you some idea of what this might look like for a startup today, Fictiv’s look at 3D printing services suggests a 24-hour turnaround for prototypes and just three days for larger orders, indicating that entire 3D printing projects can be handled with impressive efficiency. Clearly there’s more to the whole process: Someone involved with the startup has to create the digital design and save it to a file, materials have to be chosen, and the specifics of the order have to be worked out. But it’s pretty amazing that 3D printing can now provide a startup with its inventions or inventory in what’s ultimately a matter of hours. The number of new businesses this could enable to succeed must be staggering.
4. Create Food
It’s almost hard to imagine 3D printing can be used to create food, but there’s a chance this winds up being its most significant application. While it may not be the cheeriest topic, we’ll need to confront potential food shortages worldwide at some point in the near future. Late last year NBC News reported that if climate change continues and temperatures rise, there are high risks of food supply shortages. Naturally, there are numerous organizations and scientific initiatives working to avoid and/or prepare for this eventuality. But we might be able to add 3D printing to the list. Remarkably, the process is already being used to create edible food.
5. Change The Retail Business
Lastly, we’ve begun to see and imagine some incredibly cool ways that 3D printing can impact the retail world. To this point, Retail Dive pointed out that there are some brands (like Adidas) that have already experimented with on-demand, 3D-printed apparel, introducing the possibility of walking into a store, helping to create your own product from scratch, and walking out with it. The same process could expand customization options in online retail. And for that matter, it could even be that in the near future you’ll be able to connect your own compatible 3D printer to a given retail company through an app or website, pay for a product, and see it printed into existence right in your own home!
As stated, there are too many applications of 3D printing to mention in one place. Hopefully these examples have effectively showcased how broad the technology’s impact is already though, and just how incredible it could be.