For the past several weeks, 3D printing has been making headlines around the world, and primarily in the United States. To the frustration of most of the industry, this significant media attention has been grabbed by the ever-notorious 3D printed gun debate, re-ignited by the U.S. government’s recent decision to legalize the proliferation of 3D printable gun files. “A 3D printed gun is downloadable death,” reads a CNN headline by actress Alyssa Milano. “Newly-legal 3D printed gun blueprints are a looming catastrophe,” reports the Telegraph.
And while it may be worth talking about gun regulation and control (especially in the United States!), 3D printing’s role in the matter is unfortunately overshadowing many of the non-destructive, incredibly positive things that people are using 3D printers for. To highlight some of the positive impacts that 3D printing is having around the globe, here is a list of some of the top ways (not listed in order of importance) that the technology is making a difference for the environment, health, culture and more.
In recent years, the benefits of using 3D printing for various disaster relief efforts have become increasingly apparent. Perhaps the most compelling use of 3D printing for disaster relief was by Field Ready, a tech-oriented NGO, which relied on 3D printing to make water pipe fittings and washers on the fly after the severe earthquake in Nepal in April 2015. In other words, 3D printing’s suitability for producing spare parts has the potential to help communities in disaster areas to rebuild infrastructure more quickly.
From another perspective, makers in Japan devised a 3D printed drone, the X VEIN, built specifically for rapid disaster relief and specifically search and rescue missions.
Similarly, a number of construction 3D printing companies, such as Contour Crafting, have said their in situ 3D printing technologies could be deployed to disaster zones to rebuild homes in a cost, time and labour effective manner.
The last disaster relief application for 3D printing can also have a positive impact outside of disaster areas, as 3D printed housing has been touted as a possible solution for low-income housing. Earlier this year, ICON and New Story made headlines for their $4,000 3D printed house. The 3D printing technology used for the build is reportedly capable of constructing a single story, 600-800 square foot home in under 24 hours and is ultimately intended for producing housing in developing areas.
Creative design agency Framlab also proposed the development of 3D printed pods to help house New York’s homeless and, eventually, to combat homelessness in every city. The pod project, called Homed, consists of a pre-fabricated outer aluminum shell with 3D printed polycarbonate interior modules and fitted with a customizable range of interiors.
Affordable, stylish and children prosthetics
Almost as soon as affordable 3D printing technologies became available, literally dozens of projects have focused on using them to produce prosthetics at accessible costs to people in developing countries or to children. The e-Nable association and community were among the very first of these but so many other ones followed. Projects like Open Bionics and companies like 3D Life Prints took it to the next level in terms of complexity and reach.
OpenΒionics, for example, works as an open-source initiative for the development of affordable, light-weight, modular robot hands and prosthetic devices, that can be easily reproduced using off-the-shelf materials. Their robot hands cost less than $100 and weigh less than 200g while their new anthropomorphic prosthetic hand costs less than $200 and weighs less than 300g.
Glaze Prosthetics uses 3D printing to make prosthetics cool. The company decided to help struggling amputees, turn their condition into an advantage and provide them with superheroes gear – really awesome 3D printed prosthetics.
More efficient transportation = less pollution
You could write hundreds of pages on the benefits that industrial 3D printing is bringing to industries such as aerospace, aviation, automotive and even energy production (in fact we do write hundreds of pages on these topics, in our Smartech Publishing industry reports). However, strictly in terms of immediate benefits to humanity, using 3D printing in industrial manufacturing can help in many ways. For example by reducing waste and producing on demand. However one of the biggest benefits is weight reduction through part geometry optimization. This can become cost-effective only through the use of AM and in the near future, it will reduce emissions from airplanes and cars by millions of tons.
By the way, many current metal direct energy based 3D printing technologies (powder bed fusion and directed energy deposition) are very energy intensive. This, however, is an entirely relative issue if the energy used is produced from renewable sources placed near the production plant. In addition, upcoming technologies such as production level metal binder jetting may significantly reduce energy consumption.
Saving the coral reefs
Some of the most diverse ecosystems on the planet, coral reefs are also some of the most fragile. In recent years especially, the underwater ecosystems have suffered tremendously from rising water temperatures and are not expected to survive for much longer.
The grim reality of coral reefs is uplifted somewhat by a number of recent efforts to use 3D printing to reinvigorate coral growth and sustain the many aquatic species that live in the reefs. One such effort is being heralded by Emerging Objects, Boston Ceramics and the SECORE organization and consists of 3D printing settlement substrates that meet coral larvae’s needs as well as requirements for effective reef restoration.
Fabien Cousteau (the grandson of famed oceanographer Jacques Cousteau), has also been a proponent for integrating artificial 3D printed coral into reefs. Because of 3D printing’s ability to create internal geometries and textures, real coral structures can be mimicked. The hope is that by placing these coral lookalikes in the ocean, coral polyps will be able to grow around them and species dependent on coral for protection can thrive.
Better and more affordable healthcare
While you may not be aware of it, 3D printing is already being used to provide more affordable and more efficient medical and dental care. Custom, 3D printed titanium and polymer implants have already been implanted in thousands of patients with excellent results. 3D printed hip, spinal and knee replacements are common today as AM technologies can be used to produce lighter and more efficient structures that promote bone integration (osseointegration) through complex trabecular and lattice structures. Just about all major implant manufacturing companies now offer them, as regulatory commissions in Europe, China and the US have now approved dozens of applications.
A similar situation is emerging for dental care. Orthodontic laboratories all over the world are using 3D technologies to make dental care more affordable. You can now use 3D printing to produce dental models, metal replacements and even temporary replacements. Soon, you will be able to use 3D printing even for permanent dental prosthetics made of advanced polymers so that everyone, everywhere will have access to better dental care.
In addition, 3D printing is being increasingly (though not nearly enough yet) used by surgeons to prepare for complex surgeries. Some of these surgeries would be impossible without enabling the surgeons to prepare for all eventualities using physical 3D printed models of the area (organs, veins, arteries, nerves) they are going to operate on. There are many examples but ones that stands above many other is the case of two conjoined twins successfully separated with support from 3D Systems technology in 2017.
3D bioprinted organs
Although 3D bioprinting is opening up amazing possibilities for the future, the idea of bioprinting replacement organs such as kidneys and livers is as far-fetched as the idea that criminals armed with 3D printed guns will take over the world. At the same time, some key parts of the human body can already be 3D printed using biocompatible and bioresorbable materials to save the life of patients. One key example is the case of Kaiba Gionfriddo, who received a 3D printed trachea to cure him of his tracheobronchomalacia (a condition that causes the trachea collapse in small babies).
Another typical example of 3D printed organs is the use of 3D printing to produce implantable heart valves and bone grafts. In the near future, we may see 3D printing used to produce heart tissue, cartilage implants (for noses, ears, knees and vertebral discs), skin grafts and even corneas. Bioprinting is also used in new drug development and testing and it is being heavily introduced in the cosmetics industry to do entirely away with animal testing.
Cultural and archeological preservation
The destruction by ISIS and other terrorist organizations of precious works of art from humanity’s heritage—such as the giant Buddhas in Afghanistan or the ancient city of Palmyra in Syria—shocked the world and prompted many artists, archeologists and NGOs to work together to rebuild, replace or protect them from future dangers. 3D scanning and 3D printing technologies have been used to rebuild and preserve priceless artifacts such as the burial site and even the full mummy of Tutankhamon and to rebuild parts of the city of Palmyra itself. Studio Factum Arte has worked on several of these amazing preservation projects.
At the same time, 3D printing can also be used in education and to make art and historical artifacts more available to those who suffer from visual or motion impairment as well as to those who live in remote areas of the world. Giving painting a physical form or enabling people to touch replicas of artifacts that need to be kept under protective covers—and to reproduce them almost anywhere in the world—is radically changing the way people access and learn about art and history. In fact, 3D printing service provider Materialise recently went so far as to 3D print a full-size mammoth.
Accessible medical and lab devices
On a global scale, additive manufacturing is helping to democratize innovation. You don’t need a ton of capital or access to industrial manufacturing equipment to develop and prototype a product, just a 3D printer and some inspiration. We’ve seen this take effect in some amazing ways, with many innovators developing medical products and lab devices to help people who may not have access to state of the art medical facilities.
For example, researchers from RMIT University in Australia recently developed a 3D printable smartphone clip-on microscope which could help remote and developing communities to determine the quality of drinking water and could help in the diagnosis of parasites or malaria. The low-cost and accessible device has also been make open source, so just about anyone can recreate it.
Another interesting project is a 3D printed oral delivery system for vaccines from UC Berkeley. Though still in development, the 3D printed MucoJet device could make vaccinations needle-free within the next decade, making them easier to administer in parts of the world with limited trained staff and limited access to sterilized injection sites.
3D printing is playing an increasingly important role in the promotion and encouragement of STEM education amongst young students. With its ability to produce physical objects, the technology provides a hands on way for kids to learn about and engage with a variety of subjects.
With 3D printers being developed specifically for the classroom—and with programs such as GE Additive’s Education Program—a growing number of kids are learning about 3D design, CAD, programming and manufacturing processes with the help of 3D printing. Even young children can learn about the production process and 3D modeling programs with kid-friendly software and 3D printers.
Elsewhere, 3D prints are being utilized to produce tactile models to help students learn about things like mental health, robotics and more. Overall, the creativity that 3D printing affords makes it a perfect technology for introducing students to all sort of science, technology, engineering and math subjects.
This is just the beginning…
This list is largely incomplete. We have already thought of many more beneficial uses of 3D printing and will continue to update it. In the meantime, if there are other beneficial applications of 3D printing that you would like to see listed here, drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org and we will make sure to integrate it as soon as possible.