3D printing has come a long way. The first 3D-printed object was a small, black cup-shaped item, created by Colorado native Chuck Hull in 1983. Back then Hull called his breakthrough “stereolithography”. But perhaps even he couldn’t foresee that, 34 years later, his invention would become one of technology’s most fascinating sectors: not just for the process behind it, but for the seachange it could precipitate for billions of people worldwide.
Hull’s 3D Systems is now one of Silicon Valley’s, and the world’s, most illustrious suppliers of 3D printers. But entrepreneurs across the planet are making almost daily advances in the 3D printing industry. Here are four of the most striking, and useful, 3D-printed objects that could change life forever.
The notion of using 3D printing technology in medicine isn’t new: Red Herring reported on a Russian company’s plan to create bespoke cortex casts for broken limbs in 2015. But last year’s announcement by New York-based Create Orthotics and Prosthetics, that it had made the world’s first medical-grade prosthetic arm for a Haiti earthquake survivor, marked a steep step up in the race to provide cost-effective and reliable 3D-printed prostheses.
Years previously such items cost up to $35,000. Now they can be printed for just hundreds of dollars. Among the industry’s key players are Wiivv, BioFab and Japanese firm exiii, which has made its prosthetic arm model files available online, at the cost of just $300. Little wonder the 3D printing healthcare will be worth a reported $4.04bn by next year.
Among the annals of motoring history, Local Motors might not carry the same weight as GM, Mercedez Benz or Ferrari. But Tennessee-based Local can boast a first none of those storied marques can: the world’s first 3D-printed car. The Strati, a stylish, sporty number, was printed in 44 hours in a Detroit factory, and costs around $5,000 to build. It might not win many sprints. But the Strati could be first in line for a world-changing–and lucrative–market.
The Strati’s wheels, battery and motor may not be 3D-printed, but the fact it exists is huge news: already mainstream manufacturers are using the technology to manufacture parts at greatly reduced cost. The market may have reached its latest peak with the Blade, a 700-horsepower, mid-engined supercar manufactured by Los Angeles’ Divergent 3D, which earlier this year won a $23m funding round to disrupt the automotive industry. Buckle up!
For years 3D printing was confined to small-scale gadgets and curios. No longer. Alongside useful items like cars and medical supplies, the technology has been turned to home-building–a trajectory that has peaked mostly in China. In 2014 WinSun built ten homes in Shanghai at a cost of just $4,800. Two years later Beijing-based HuaShang Tengda Technology constructed a two-story, 400sq m luxury villa outside the Chinese capital.
American firms are getting in on the act too. San Francisco’s Apis Cor this year built a 3D-printed home in the Russian town of Stupino in under a day, at a cost of $10,314 (the median home price in San Francisco is $1.5m). The 400sq ft building will attract a growing number of people who want to live in small homes. It is also sure to shake up the $10.3tr global construction industry. Builders beware: 3D printers are coming for you.
4. Body parts
There are plenty of recent tech breakthroughs that have rattled the media and public (AI, anybody?). But few have caused such a sharp intake of breath, whether positive or negative, as the recently-acquired ability of companies to 3D-print human body parts using cells. Custom-made heart valves, skin, liver cells and ears have all been created. And they have been proven to work in animal testing.
The biggest challenge doctors and printing technologists face now, is keeping cells alive: they run out of oxygen when part of tissues thicker than 0.2mm. But this is no insurmountable task. And healthcare professionals are already cooing about the opportunity to scan patients’ damaged body parts, then recreate them in hospitals to be fitted same-day. It’s a brave new world, and it’s already here.