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7 Surprisingly Revolutionary Ways to Use 3D Printers

What would you print with a 3D printer? New shoes? A rhino horn? An ear? Let's check out seven suprising areas that are finding important uses for 3D printing.

By
Sabrina Stierwalt, PhD,
March 15, 2016
Episode #184

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What would you print, if you could print in three dimensions? The business of 3D printing is right on the cusp of becoming a more widespread technology. If the cost of 3D printers continues to drop and their ease of use continues to improve, they are likely to become not only more routine, but they also may prove to have some unexpected uses.

Three-dimensional printers have been used in industry for thirty years, since the 80s, mostly to produce prototype parts to test complex or expensive equipment before a full investment is made in its construction. Since they can reproduce an exquisite amount of detail in relatively small objects, 3D printers have also been used to produce precise replicas of cars, like the 1960 Aston Martin DB5 model that was crashed by James Bond in the movie Skyfall.  A 3D printer has even produced a 40-inch replica of the Millennium Falcon that takes three months to print.

Although it’s exciting to dream up what I might want to make an exact replica of—my house? The first car I ever drove? Tom Morello’s custom “Arm the Homeless” guitar?—toys and collector’s items are just the tip of the proverbial iceberg as far as what 3D printers can do. Here are seven surprising areas that are expanding the market for 3D printing.

1. Prosthetic Limbs for Children

A typical prosthetic limb can cost as much as $40,000, and about one child in every 2,000 is in need of one. However, every parent knows that you don’t want to invest too much money in anything your child is just going to grow out of in a few months. So the solution has been not to make prosthetic limbs for children, unless they are lucky enough to be able to buy a new one every year, until they are closer to full grown.

Now, thanks to 3D printers, prosthetics can be printed for $10-20 worth of plastic. The makers of these prosthetics warn that they are, of course, not as sturdy as the $40,000 version, but since the child will grow out of it in a few months anyway and since they are so easily replaced, they don’t need to be. You can watch a video of a 3D printer in action from the lab of RIT research scientist John Shull to make a child-size prosthetic hand on pbs.org.

And advancements are not just being made for children—efforts to provide prosthetics to people in the developing world or in war torn countries like the Sudan have increased thanks to the newfound affordability provided by 3D printers. Researchers are also finding ways to make limbs more customizable due to the precision of 3D printed models.

2. Tissue, Organs, and Other Body Parts

Prosthetic limbs are just the beginning when it comes to bodily enhancements made possible with 3D printing. One company has had success with 3D printed liver cells that so far have only been used to test new pharmaceuticals—and do not last more than about a month—but could eventually lead to the 3D printing of entire organs. Another name is added to the waiting list for a life-saving organ every twelve minutes. If organs could instead be constructed with a 3D printer, such a development could save the lives of more than 121,000 people currently on the list for a transplant in the U.S..

Other efforts to incorporate 3D printing into medical advancement include investigations of whether or not intervertebral discs can be printed. An estimated $90 billion is spent each year researching treatment for back pain caused by the degeneration of existing discs, a process often aggravated by our increasingly sedentary life styles. Other labs have made progress toward the 3D printing of heart valves and ear cartilage, and two years ago, a 3D printed lung splint saved the life of a baby with tracheomalacia, a condition which left his trachea so weak that it would easily collapse, cutting off his ability to breathe in the process.

3. Cheaper, More Accessible Medicine

The first 3D printed pill was recently approved for use in the US by the FDA. The new drug, Spritam, aims to control epileptic seizures. The precision of the 3D printing process will allow for more precise dosages to be more tightly packed into each pill.

The use of 3D printing could make medications more accessible and more affordable. Perhaps in the future we will be able to print our own medications at home, after a doctor provides us with the blueprint specific to our needs and after ordering the chemical ink needed to construct the pills from our local pharmacy.

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