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8/2/2013
12:51 PM
Jeff Bertolucci
Jeff Bertolucci
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10 Cool Things 3-D Printers Can Do

Cars, guitars, and tracheal implants: Is there anything that 3-D printers can't make?




Technological innovations are often overhyped as "the next big thing," but 3-D printing might be the real deal. The technology allows the rapid design and layer-by-layer printing of three-dimensional prototypes and has strong potential in manufacturing. A variety of materials are used to create 3-D-printed objects, including plastics, metal alloys, food materials, clear resin and even human tissue. Scientists, in fact, are experimenting with 3-D printing techniques to create replacement body parts, including ears and noses, and perhaps internal organs someday.

3-D technology is in its early days, however, and early adopters often need a dash of pioneer grit to see ambitious projects through to completion. One example shown in this slideshow is the 3-D printing of a replica of a vintage automobile. Experience with computer-aided design (CAD) software is essential, as is a willingness to crowdsource solutions to technical problems that arise during the 3-D modeling and printing phases of the project.

Such growing pains are to be expected, of course, as is often the case with new technologies. And despite 3-D printing's current shortcomings, many tech analysts expect it to have a bright future, particularly in the business world.

In the consumer market, however, things are less clear.

A new study by Michigan Technological University researchers says that open source 3-D printing is a cheaper way for the average U.S. household to produce some home products when you compare the online prices of similar goods (before shipping costs).

"The results show that even making the extremely conservative assumption that the household would only use the printer to make the selected 20 products a year, the avoided purchase cost savings would range from about $300 to $2,000/year," reads the report's abstract.

Not everyone agrees, however. Gartner doesn't see 3-D printing as having a strong household appeal, in part because it requires some familiarity with CAD or 3-D design software, which the average consumer lacks. But the outlook is brighter on the business side. Gartner predicts that enterprise-class 3-D printers priced under $2,000 will be available within three years.

Microsoft is adding 3-D printing support to Windows 8.1, a move that may help spur the technology's adoption in the business world, if not in the home.

Before embarking on your own 3-D printing odyssey, it's a good idea to read up on potential problems and pitfalls, as well as possible solutions. A good place to start is "The 10 Commandments of 3-D Printing" by IT professional Marc Liron of InkFactory.com.

Liron's No. 1 commandment: "You shall devise a strategy first. Before starting on your 3-D printing project make sure you have a plan that details what resources and equipment you will need." In short, plan ahead.

Dig into our slideshow to see 10 cool things you can do with a 3-D printer.


Ivan Sentch of Auckland, New Zealand, has been working on his ambitious 3-D-printing project since the start of 2013. He's using a Solidoodle 3-D printer to build a replica of an Aston Martin DB4 sports car -- a daunting effort for an auto enthusiast with no previous 3-D printing experience. Sentch is using Autodesk 3ds Max as his 3-D design software, and AllyCAD, a separate CAD app, to print MDF (motion-defined form) shapes on paper. As of late July, his 3-D car project was 72% complete -- the printing, anyway. The assembly phase will bring "endless months" of additional work, he says. For more details on Sentch's 3-D-printed car project, check out Solidoodle's interview with the car builder.

Sentch isn't the only one printing vintage vehicles. The makers of the latest James Bond film, "Skyfall," enlisted the services of German 3-D printing company Voxeljet to build three plastic models of the legendary Aston Martin DB5 sports car, says 3-D printing news site 3Ders.org. One of the models explodes in the film. Sad.

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3-D printing techniques allow for the manufacture of weird and wild guitars that couldn't be built via traditional methods. The Spider 3-D printed guitar (pictured) is one of a collection of aptly named ODD Guitars by Olaf Diegel, a design engineer and professor of mechatronics at Massey University in Auckland, New Zealand. According to Diegel's site, the 3-D printing method used to make ODD guitars is called Selective Laser Sintering (SLS), which spreads a thin layer -- usually 0.1 mm thick -- of nylon powder to slowly build up a component, layer by layer. This technique allows customers to customize their guitars in (somewhat) economical fashion. The typical price for a Spider guitar is around $3,000 (U.S.).

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How do you carry your USB and charging cables? Gear Wraps are 3-D-printed spools designed to keep cables and earbuds wrapped tightly and easy to carry. Created by San Francisco-based industrial designer Eddie Licitra, these lightweight mini-spools are available at Shapeways, a 3-D printing marketplace, at prices ranging from $14.78 to $77.19, depending on the materials used. Do-it-yourselfers can print Gear Wraps using a MakerBot or other 3-D printer, according to Licitra's website.

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It's no secret that printer supplies are crazy expensive, so this idea should appeal to anyone who's ever paid big bucks for ink cartridges. InkFactory.com, a U.K.-based retailer of printer cartridges, recently 3-D-printed a working inkjet cartridge. The project began in June when InkFactory bought a MakerBot Replicator 2 3-D printer and a set of colored PLA plastics. The company chose Kodak 30C and Kodak 30B cartridges for its project, and used the SolidWorks CAD program to design 3-D drawings of the objects. It then exported the drawings as industry standard .STL files to the MakerWare software (included with the Replicator printer) and after some modifications, began printing. Here's a brief video of the project.

So will we all start printing our own ink cartridges? Probably not, as InkFactory says the project was a significant undertaking. But there's always hope.

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The prognosis was bleak for Kaiba Gionfriddo, an infant suffering from tracheobronchomalacia, a condition that can cause weak airway walls to collapse during breathing or coughing. Kaiba's doctors sought help from University of Michigan scientists, who used 3-D printing techniques to design and implant a custom-made tracheal splint for Kaiba.

The researchers created the splint from a CT scan of Kaiba's trachea/bronchus. They used a 3-D biomaterial printing process to construct the device, which was made from a biopolymer called polycaprolactone. In February 2012, doctors sewed the splint around Kaiba's airway to expand his bronchus and provide a skeleton for growth. Over a period of three years, the boy's body will absorb the splint. The University of Michigan says this image-based design and 3-D printing method can be used to build and reconstruct various tissue and bone structures.

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How do you capture the expressive eyes of animated characters in an interactive toy or robot? Animatronic, mechanical eyes are complex and expensive to build, particularly in small toys and stuffed animals. Besides, they can appear creepy and lifeless. Video projection is an alternative, but it's often hard to implement in small characters and on complex faces with eyes that either bulge out or are deeply sunken.

The solution: Disney Research's Papillon technology uses bundles of 3-D-printed optical fibers, which guide images projected onto the surface of the character's eyes. Using transparent photopolymers, the technique prints eyes "slice-by-slice" and enables curved display surfaces with few visual artifacts, such as light distortions on the edges of the eye.

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3-D printers might soon slip the surly bonds of Earth. In June the first 3-D printer designed for space passed a series of microgravity tests at NASA's Johnson Space Center, according to Made In Space, a space manufacturing company that built the device. Slated to arrive at the International Space Station next year, the printer is part of a NASA-led experiment to test 3-D printing in space as a way to reduce astronauts' dependence on supplies ferried from Earth. Looking ahead, NASA is also exploring ways to "print" food in space using 3-D printing technologies, although tests aboard an actual space flight are years away, the agency says.

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Here's one of those pragmatic ideas that might someday be an easy, do-it-yourself project for home-based hobbyists and school kids. 3-D printers are well-suited to creating smartphone cases made from lightweight and flexible materials such as laser-sintered nylon plastic, which comes in a variety of colors and finishes. Premade iPhones cases manufactured by 3-D printers are available for sale, ranging in price from around $23 to $35. One unanswered question: What's the long-term durability of smartphone cases built by 3-D printers?

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Drive a stick? How about a little haptic and visual feedback to help you shift gears? The Haptic Feedback Shift Knob works in conjunction with an Android app that monitors a vehicle's RPM, speed and accelerator pedal position. The app vibrates the shift knob when it's time for the driver to change gears. The knob was originally designed by Ford engineer Zachary Nelson, who explains in this video how he uses an inexpensive (sub-$1,000) MakerBot 3-D printer with open source software to design and build the part. The shift knob also has embedded electronics for driver feedback, push buttons to activate voice controls, and other features.

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The versatility of 3-D printing is its greatest attribute. As this BBC news report illustrates, the ability to take an everyday object -- a coffee mug, in this case -- scan it, create a digital replica and quickly a produce a real-world copy shows the tremendous potential of 3-D printing, particularly for small-business users. What do you think? Will 3-D printing prove as revolutionary as the steam engine, computer or Internet?

RECOMMENDED READING:

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