More 3D Printing Applications

Do any of these have real long-term legs; beware of the printed gun, but custom replacement organs are an interesting idea.


There is enough news about 3D printing that the Guardian newspaper’s Web site even has a special section on it. The list of demonstrated applications runs the gamut from guns to panties via custom bobble head dolls and organs. It’s interesting to look at all these ideas and try and work out which really has potential.

There are 3 categories for potential:

  1. Practical.
  2. Possible with invention.
  3. Catchy but useless.

The leader in the ‘Catchy but useless” category is the gun, which has received lots of publicity. Experts have warned that the potential for misfires, or the gun to disintegrate, should make everyone very wary of any 3D printed weapon . In the end the plastic gun has a  very limited number of shots and it’s done. A 3D printed gun has been converted to metal, but it’s now as detectable as a conventional weapon. The printed gun should make us all wary, but a printed container for explosives is probably not a long-term idea.

Any number of “pet rock” ideas fall into the same category and have received recent publicity; shells for crabs (see picture if you do not believe me), custom mini-me bobble head dolls, railway models, key chains.

A custom 3D printed crab shell!

In the “possible with invention” category are several really interesting ideas. Replacement organs are the ultimate custom application. We are all different and seem to need a verity of replacements. Printed groups of embryonic stem cells have been used to make mini- livers for drug development. As many as 30 different implantable elements have been fabricated including; bladders, urine tubes, trachea, heart components. Another group has made high-sensitivity custom ears.

In the “Practical” category, the largest immediate opportunity is in prototype or small volume plastic parts. I talked about NASA’s interest in a previous blog. A custom car has been built by 3D printing, and supposedly the car companies are using 3D printing for their concept cars.

Prosthetics are an immediate biomedical application where every unit must be custom. A first demonstration has been accomplished for a duck that needed a replacement foot for a birth defect.

A company has developed printed disposable fabric and can make a custom disposable panty in three seconds. But is better fitting underwear a critical market need? There is talk that in the future you could get a printed custom suit, but the invention of a quality suit fabric sounds like a huge stretch to me. Custom bras have been printed.

Fashion accessories were the other application I talked about previously. There may be a fine line between “practical” accessories and “catchy but useless” pet rocks, the question really is whether the interest lasts more than a couple of Christmas seasons.

The take away is that there is a huge creative buzz around 3D printing. The real ideas with immediate impact are prototype mold and plastic fabrication, although the challenge is how many similar printers are needed. The potential for custom biomedical components is significant because every element has to be custom. I would be very wary of trendy applications that only last one or two seasons, as it is very dangerous to build a business around these short-term fashions.


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