And You Can Print That, Too…

There will come a day—very soon—when 3D printing won’t be amazing. It will be assumed. 

From body parts and tools, to jewelry, furniture, footwear and iPod covers, a vast array of printed things were on display recently at EuroMold, a manufacturing trade show in Frankfurt, Germany.

(Don’t be put off by the word “dentistry” in this video. By the time they get to the printed spine, your jaw will be on the floor—which isn’t a problem, because those can be printed, too. Click over to YouTube for more trade show videos)

Buoyed by the playful novelty of Makerbots and RepRaps, 3D printing (or “additive manufacturing” as those in the trade prefer to call it) is having a zeitgeist moment. Faster than you can say Moore’s Law, technical hurdles are vanishing, costs dropping and imagination soaring. With a bit of tweaking, almost anything can be turned into an “ink”: plastic, metal, silicon, cell. And almost anything can be made, with an astonishing level of customization simply not possible with more traditional methods such as injection molding or die casting. 

Exhibit A: a series of molds created using Geomagic software from 3D scans designed to reduce the cleft width of a baby born with a severe cleft lip and palate before surgery, without inhibiting upper-jaw growth. 

Additive manufacturing is more than a new way of making things. It is about making new things and better things. The Singularity of Stuff is here, with some of the most innovative designs inspired by Nature (or pilfered from Nature, if you’re a pro-SOPA sort…). Biomimicry is the 3D design muse, leading the way to products that are lighter, stronger and more durable, such as: 

  • an artificial hip with an internal lattice structure so similar to bone, it binds to real bone better. 
  • a load-bearing concrete column that mimics a plant stem, filled with vertical structures 
  • hydraulic fluid that flows with significantly increased efficiency through artery-like channels in a gear box

from The Economist: 

That ability to create light, strong structures which have complex internal shapes may well turn out to be additive manufacturing’s killer app. The layering of powders or droplets that are then sintered into solidity, or cured with heat or ultraviolet light, allows spaces to be left inside the product. And if such a space would otherwise collapse, it can be filled with a powder that remains intact during curing and is then washed out or blown away. Even moving parts, like clock mechanisms, have thus been made in one go in a 3D printer… (ed.: emphasis added) 


Nature authors not forms, but processes to think about form. Recipes that mix materials and environment together. And it it due to those mixtures and these relationships that form emerges. 

Neri Oxman

While the focus at EuroMold is squarely on the wow of the tangible, Oxman, who heads up the Mediated Matter research group at MIT’s Media Lab, looks at the implications for design and, by extension, for science and technology. She starts with analysis, meticulously studying materials, looking for multifuctionality (e.g. an egg shell provides strength while allowing for the exchange of oxygen and CO2). Form doesn’t follow function so much as function is allowed by form. 

The ramifications are significant. If, as Oxman proposes at the end of this Poptech talk from 2010, it is possible to “print” concrete forms that are lighter yet stronger, it would dramatically cut the greenhouse gas tally from construction. Better buildings. A more stable planet. Yes, let’s print that. 

—J. A. Ginsburg / @TrackerNews


* (3D electric light shoe pictured at the top of this post from Freedom of Creation)