3D printing is efficient and highly customizable, and has potential applications across a wide range of industries.
While 3D printing technology for consumer products has yet to live up to the hype, it’s thriving in the industrial world.
The technology enables rapid prototyping, which means that teams developing a new product can quickly experiment with different designs and materials, accelerating the product’s path to market. It’s also highly customizable and resource-efficient.
The 3D printing space has seen significant fundraising growth since 2013, with big manufacturing corporates like GE and Siemens investing heavily. Global spending on 3D printing will reach nearly $12B in 2018, according to IDC forecasts.
As the technology permeates more design studios and factory floors, the potential applications are virtually endless.
From construction to pharmaceuticals to food, we take a look at the industries that 3D printing could disrupt.
1. ARCHITECTURE AND CONSTRUCTION
Applications of 3D printing in architecture and construction are developing rapidly. The technology has become relatively widespread in the project design stage — architects can print models of properties, commercial real estate, and infrastructure.
In the future, development and engineering teams could have easy access to full-scale 3D printed models to test new designs and materials.
The Dubai Future Foundation debuted what it claimed was the first 3D-printed building in 2016. The city-state says that by 2025, 25% of its new buildings will be made using 3D printers.
3D-printed houses have been unveiled in several cities, including Austin, Texas. They are highly energy efficient and can be built in a matter of days, at a fraction of the cost of traditional residential construction. Companies, non-profits, and governments are collecting data on the longevity of these houses to determine how and when they could become widely available.
This has major implications for the speed and accuracy of construction. For example, emergency housing could be 3D printed immediately after a natural disaster. Machine construction of infrastructure projects could eliminate the risks that come with human error.
3D printing has the potential to modernize classrooms and better prepare students for technical careers.
Educators can produce visual aids — like artifact replicas — to bring a lesson to life. Students can engage in hands-on learning experiences that bring theory into the real world.
In higher education, 3D printing holds potential not only for engineering students, but also for those in departments like art, medicine, and anthropology.
MakerBot is one of the most prominent players in 3D printing for education. Its printers come with hundreds of STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art, and mathematics) lesson plans. MakerBots are now available in 5,000 schools throughout the US.
The main value of 3D food printing lies in convenience and customization. As specialized diets become more commonplace, 3D-printed food is poised to enable more personalized on-demand eating experiences.
Originally limited to sugary, processed confections, the technology has made strides to encompass a much wider range of options. Now, some commercial kitchens have embraced 3D printing, and a handful of companies have debuted at-home 3D food printer prototypes.
Natural Machines‘ Foodini can print a variety of foods using natural ingredients, so long as they are able to be pureed. Natural Machines claims that the possibilities are unlimited. The Foodini is currently available for commercial kitchens, with a goal to bring it to home cooks in the future.
Some food companies are already using 3D printing in their production process. Dairy-free milk startup Perfect Day, for example, uses 3D printing to make dairy proteins without cows.
Many doctors are optimistic about 3D printing’s potential to make prosthetic limbs, braces, and other mobility devices more accessible.
In the US, prosthetics are typically priced anywhere from $5,000 to $50,000, and the process of obtaining one can take months. 3D printing drastically cuts costs and production time — a 3D-printed prosthetic can typically be made in a single day.
For people who wear prosthetics, the quality and comfort of the device determines the activities that they can engage in on a daily basis, so customization is paramount. 3D printing technology is well suited to meet that need.
3D printing could help bring prosthetics to those most in need, especially in developing countries affected by conflict or disease. Volunteer organization Enabling the Future uses 3D printing to make the $50 e-NABLE mechanical hand.
5. PHARMACEUTICAL DRUGS
3D printing could allow drugs to be manufactured according to an individual patient’s needs and preferences.
Drug characteristics like shape, color, design, strength, release profile, and distribution of ingredients cannot be easily modified in conventional manufacturing processes. Now companies like vitamin startup Multiply Labs, which leverages 3D printing to build made-to-order personal supplements, are demonstrating the power of printing pills.
The technology could also affect injectable drugs. MIT researchers have invented a new printing technique to develop microparticles that deliver multiple, time-staggered doses of a drug from a single vaccination.
There are significant regulatory hurdles that will need to be overcome before 3D drug printing goes mainstream. The FDA’s Office of Testing and Research is further exploring applications of 3D printing for drug products.
To date, there is only one FDA-approved, 3D-printed drug: Spritam®, an anti-epileptic seizure medication, is designed to disintegrate within seconds after swallowing. The producer, Aprecia Pharmaceuticals, claims that the drug’s unique structure cannot be achieved through conventional manufacturing.
The automotive industry was one of the pioneers of 3D printing. For automakers, the technology offers faster, more cost effective product development cycles and end products that are strong and lightweight.
So far, automotive companies have primarily used 3D printing for pre-production tasks. As consumers demand more digitally connected and environmentally friendly vehicles, the technology has allowed automakers to design, test, and validate new concepts faster than ever before.
Automotive companies are increasingly using 3D printing to manufacture spare parts, jigs, and interior elements. This can decrease reliance on external vendors and speed up the path to market.
Several automakers have debuted prototypes that are produced almost entirely by 3D printing. Italian company X Electrical Vehicle says that that it will bring the first mass-produced 3D-printed car to market in 2019.
Automakers from Ford to BMW are exploring how to leverage the technology for customization. Today, producing small batches of customized auto parts and tooling is often cost prohibitive because they are formed with molding, which requires a significant up-front investment.
3D printing eliminates the need for molding in many cases, so big players like Stratasys could eventually enable fully customized vehicles to reach a mainstream market.
Many in the art community have been quick to embrace 3D printing. Today, an artist can draw a design by hand and then 3D print it using materials like metal, glass, and ceramics.
In 2014, the Smithsonian Institution’s National Portrait Gallery revealed a 3D-printed portrait of President Obama. Other artistic feats enabled by 3D printing include a sculptural replica of a classic Van Gogh’s “Sunflowers,” and a project that analyzed the entirety of Rembrandt’s work.
MIT’s Media Lab is envisioning a future in which it’s possible to create a 3D photorealistic representation of anything, regardless of its complexity.
3D printing also can make art more accessible outside of museums. VerusArt, for example, uses 3D printing to create textured reproductions of famous paintings and displays them for schools. Unlike in museums, students are able to touch the replicas and feel the exact brush strokes used by the original artists.
Some have noted that 3D printing art brings up a host of ethics and copyright concerns.
Designing furniture has traditionally required significant time and investment. 3D printing simplifies the process, allowing designers to test concepts more quickly and offer customers lower prices. A custom table that would typically cost thousands of dollars could cost just a couple hundred when printed.
3D printing also works well for controlling the density of a material, which means that it can produce more lightweight furniture.
Groups at IKEA and MIT are among those working on bringing 3D-printed furniture to a mass market.
With 3D printing technology, packaging companies can quickly develop new packaging designs and new equipment to manufacture packaging. Anubis 3D, for example, invented a 3D-printed robotic arm that assembles its packaging more efficiently.
3D printing can also be used to fuse product and packaging. Energy drink company Smart Cups has developed 3D-printed, biodegradable cups that contain some of the drink ingredients. The drink is created by adding water to the cup.
In the future, CPG brands could offer customers fully customizable packaging options using 3D printing.
3D printing has seen some recent controversy due to its applications in firearm production.
The issue started dominating headlines in July 2018, after the Department of Justice announced a settlement with startup Defense Distributed allowing the company to release digital blueprints for 3D-printed guns. A federal judge has since delivered the company a temporary restraining order.
Gun safety advocates and law enforcement officials have been especially concerned about the printing of plastic guns that could go undetected by metal detectors.
Just as governments have not been able to fully eliminate counterfeit currency, it may be impossible to completely stop 3D-printed guns — especially as printing technology becomes more accessible.
Drones are made up of several small parts that often need replacing, making them good candidates for 3D printing.
Today, consumers can buy ready-made printable drone kits online. If their drone crashes, they can 3D print spare parts like propellers, antenna holders, and protective equipment.
Commercial manufacturers could someday print the entire frame of a drone, with parts uniquely customized for specific use cases.
US Army researchers have teamed up with the Marines to develop 3D-printed UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) that soldiers could customize for specific missions. They envision that soldiers could have the UAV printed within 24 hours of entering mission parameters.
12. MEDICAL IMPLANTS
Customization is crucial to medical implants. Each person’s anatomy is different, and in surgical settings, time is of the essence. 3D printing could be leveraged to drastically improve healthcare outcomes in cases involving implants.
A research project in Australia produced a system for bone cancer surgery in which an implant is 3D printed just as the cancerous bone is being removed. In this case, speed of production is a game changer — a situation that would normally require two operations can be condensed into one.
In the US, the FDA recently approved a 3D-printed spine implant created by Centinel Spine.
From artificial corals to prosthetics for wildlife, 3D printing has proven useful in environmental conservation.
Because 3D printing is fast and can use a wide range of natural materials, it may serve as a viable alternative to traditional environmental restoration techniques. Scientists are even using 3D-printed tags to track species in danger of extinction.
3D printing has been heralded as an environmentally friendly method of manufacturing in general. Printers can be programmed to use only the minimum amount of materials needed to make a product, and they can perform well with a variety of recyclable materials.
However, many environmentalists point out that more research needs to be done on the technology’s energy consumption and emissions footprint.
14. SPACE TECH
The value proposition for 3D printing in the space tech industry is clear: 3D printing can produce strong, lightweight equipment, and with companies racing to explore space, rapid prototyping is key.
The CEO of Relativity Space believes that the future of space tech lies in 3D printing. The company is one of a handful of space tech players that are using 3D printing to build better rockets with less capital.
NASA has also been looking into how it can harness 3D printing: it has released open source models of printable projects, such as the Apollo 11 landing site.
15. MANUAL TRANSPORTATION
For human-powered transportation methods, a vehicle’s design and materials have big implications on its speed and safety. For example, carbon road bikes, favored by Tour de France cyclists, are typically expensive and labor intensive.
Startup AREVO is using 3D printing to develop carbon fiber bikes, which it claims require almost zero human labor.
Consumers are using 3D printing to make bicycle components, accessories, spare parts — and sometimes the entire bike. In the future, cyclists might pull over at a rest stop and print a replacement part for their bicycle, or a new customized helmet.
Consumer-focused 3D printing company MakerBot recently debuted a functional 3D-printed skateboard. Skateboard enthusiasts could select the specific material, design, and technical elements that they want in a new skateboard and have it 3D printed within a few days.
3D printing has a lot to offer agriculture, an industry that relies on sturdy hardware and often takes place in isolated areas.
Farm equipment is made up of several small parts. If a piece breaks during a harvest, the time it takes to get a replacement delivered can be problematic. 3D printing presents an opportunity to be more self-sufficient, especially for smaller farms.
Some farmers In Myanmar, an area with poor infrastructure and limited access to quality tools, are using 3D printing to prototype new tools.
In the US, 3D printing has the potential to disrupt battles around Right to Repair legislation. If farmers were able to print machinery themselves, they would no longer be beholden to large machinery companies.
It’s possible to imagine future scenarios where rural farmers are able to print any spare part they may need, eliminating costly trips to the supply store. They could experiment with printing materials beyond metal, like recycled plastic, and develop a circular economy.
The International Air Transport Association (IATA) predicts that 7.2B passengers will travel by air in 2035. To keep up with demand, aircraft manufacturers need to reduce costs and boost fuel efficiency.
Giants like GE Aviation and Boeing are increasingly looking to 3D printing to develop the aircrafts of the future.
GE developed the GE Catalyst, a new turboprop engine, using 3D printing. The engine’s designers were to combine 855 separate parts into just 12.
Boeing announced that it will start using 3D-printed titanium parts to construct the 787 Dreamliner jet, which could eventually save up to $3M on each jet.
18. ARCHAEOLOGY AND CULTURAL PRESERVATION
Archaeologists often face challenges with getting access to ancient artifacts. Traveling to see an artifact can be costly, but not being able to examine it up close can impede research.
With 3D printing, archaeologists can share digital data files so that anyone can print an accurate replica of an artifact. The printed replica can then be handled and studied freely by researchers, students, or the public.
A joint partnership between Harvard, Oxford, and the Dubai Future Foundation recently unveiled a 3D-printed replica of the Palmyra Triumphal Arch, an ancient ruin that was destroyed by the Islamic State in 2015.
In Peru, archaeologists took the mummified remains of an ancient priestess and reconstructed her appearance using 3D printing.
In the future, museums could 3D print entire heritage sites, bringing the past to life with a level of accuracy that has not been possible before.
19. CONSUMER ELECTRONICS
Manufacturing devices like smartphones, tablets, and fitness trackers typically involves several steps of assembly orchestrated to enable mass production.
Manufacturers can use 3D printing to create devices as a single part, with no assembly required. This is possible because printers can combine conductive ink with the metals and plastics that make up a product’s exterior.
3D printing also offers greater freedom in design because it can eliminate the need for flat circuit boards, allowing for devices of all different shapes and sizes. The customization capabilities of 3D printing could make it especially powerful for consumer electronics, a space where made-to-order products are rare.
Today, consumer electronics manufacturers are using 3D printing systems like Optomec to make antennas, sensors, and other product elements. In the future, 3D printing could enable smaller, sleeker, more customized consumer electronics to be made with less waste.
Digitization already has transformed the toy industry, with manufacturers racing to create tech-enabled toys and compete with screens for children’s attention.
Now, 3D printing is part of the mix. Parents can print Legos, action figures, and board games at home with devices like the LulzBot Mini at-home printer.
A team at Michigan Technological University estimated that consumers could save $60M per year in toy purchases by printing toys themselves. They can also personalize toys and make creations that aren’t commercially available.
The entertainment industry is harnessing 3D printing technology to make eye-catching props, characters, and sets.
Set and prop designers often make numerous iterations of work for their producers before getting approval. Rapid prototyping and small batch production through 3D printing could go a long way in making these processes more efficient.
Several high-profile films have employed 3D printing. A costume designer from Marvel’s Black Panther revealed that the team used a Stratasys 3D printer to produce some of the costumes used in the film.
The Oscar-nominated animated film Anomalisa relied on rapid prototyping with 3D printers to create interchangeable faces and expressions for the puppets used in their stop-motion animation.
The rise of fast fashion has already disrupted the fashion industry’s seasonality, and 3D printing has the power to further accelerate production. It also allows consumers to get involved in designing the clothes they wear.
Because 3D printing works well with hard materials, it was introduced to the fashion industry with jewelry, shoes, and embellishments. Brands like Adidas, Reebok, and New Balance all have launched 3D printing initiatives.
Many fashion houses, enabled by 3D technology companies like CLO, are now using 3D scanning and 3D printing to create custom products. Designer Iris Van Herpen unveiled a collection of 3D-printed garments during a show at Paris Fashion Week 2018.
Despite 3D printing’s potential in the fashion industry, there are limitations to what it can do with soft materials and non-geometric shapes. Some envision a hybrid future in which 3D printing works in tandem with traditional methods to leverage the best of both worlds.
Timing and precision are critical in the defense space. Militaries around the world, including the US Army, the British Army, the Israeli Defense Forces, and the Chinese People’s Liberation Army, are experimenting with 3D printing to augment their operational capabilities.
The US Department of Defense included funding for 3D printing technology in the 2018 US military budget. The Subcommittee on Emerging Threats and Capabilities described “significant possibilities that additive manufacturing, or 3D printing, will provide to the Department of Defense, both in revolutionizing the industrial supply chain, as well as in providing radically new technological capabilities.”
The US military already has debuted a few notable 3D printing projects, including a grenade launcher and a drone. This concerted interest will likely drive companies that serve the US military to further invest in the development of 3D printing technology as well.
3D printing could also enable soldiers to produce their own medicine and supplies on location.
The shape and material of an instrument determines its sound. While 3D printing has yet to see major traction in the music industry, it could enable new possibilities for instrument design, composition, and sound.
Instrument manufacturers have started experimenting with 3D printing, unveiling creations like a titanium violin and a set of customized string instruments.
Printed instruments could become more common as 3D printing technology develops to work with more materials outside of plastic and metal. 3D printing could also help musicians access spare parts while on tour.
25. REGENERATIVE MEDICINE
Scientists and doctors working in regenerative medicine have long dreamed of being able to print replacement organs and tissues for humans. Demand for organ transplants far exceeds supply.
“Bioprinting” refers to the use of 3D printing to make materials that imitate those found in the human body. It can produce tissue, bone, blood vessels, and potentially whole organs.
In the near term, bioprinted materials could provide a new way to test drug safety without animals or clinical trials. L’Oreal is already experimenting with 3D-printed skin to test its cosmetics products.
3D printed tissue has historically failed to connect properly with blood vessels to receive oxygen and nutrients, but researchers are now developing printed tissue that could survive in a human body. This could have implications for conditions ranging from kidney failure to arthritis to infertility.
While there is a long way to go before bioprinting can serve human patients, there have been successful trials with mice. Scientists at Northwestern University implanted 3D-printed ovaries in a mouse that went on to reproduce and nurse.