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3D Printing: Abuses & Odd Uses

Instant manufacturing, despite a plethora of exciting applications, is also creating some bizarre results.

Almost as hot a topic as the iPhone, 3D printing is taking off everywhere. It offers rapid prototyping, low-cost tooling for molding, a way to make small production runs, and, at the expensive end of the scale, a means to do some esoteric manufacturing.

These are all valuable ideas, and they can change an industry. Just ask the jewelry trade. Making mounts and designs became a different game with 3D techniques, and it's possible to create otherwise impossible designs.

Medicine is also hitting home runs with the approach. Artificial organs are being printed already, using living cells as the ink. This is just within four years of looking at approaches. Just imagine what the future holds.

However, the technology is being applied in some surprising ways as well. A few of them lean to the dark side.

Britain is excited about the technology. The government just announced six million parts have been printed, and it is putting $20 million into advancing the technology, especially in medicine. The Science Museum in the UK has launched an exhibit of some of the best of those parts ( pictures here) and you can see the power of the approach.

Access to 3D printers is going to get much easier. Libraries are starting to install them, primarily in colleges for the use of engineering students and artists and this will become quite common as printers get cheaper. This opens up both creativity and the opportunity for abuse.

Totally unexpectedly, we are seeing an interest on the High Street in Britain. The supermarket chain ASDA is installing printer and scanners in stores. I suppose this will be the new photo booth, but it shows the interest in the technology. Selfridges is going to do the same, anticipating demand for the holiday buying season. It'll be very interesting to see what gets printed but the firm seems convinced that “selfies” will get a new twist.

However, one of the 3D creations being shown in the 3D exhibit mentioned above above is a gun. Designs like this have been fired, creating a huge concern about the directions that 3D printing could take us. This is a plastic gun, made by anyone with access to the plans published on the Internet. Terrorists apart, this may generate a ton of Darwin awards, since printed plastics vary immensely in strength, and aren't very robust. In other words, these guns may burst easily. Printing one for other than decoration is dicey. The same is true for printed hand-grenades.

Still, to date, there don't appear to be any dire consequences of the printing. What we are seeing are some zany ideas and some interesting uses.

I went to the dentist for a checkup recently, and was staggered to find a small 3D printer chirping away building a temporary denture for a patient. It has reached the point where it's economic to take digital images of the mouth and convert them to plastic on the spot. It's much faster, and cuts out the middle man.

A group of dentists is making a custom printed toothbrush. Looking like a set of dentures, it will clean your teeth in seconds, or so the makers claim. To me, it looks like a set of hairy teeth. But what do I know?

On a slightly larger scale, some Navy folks are talking about building ships using printers. That's likely a year or two out, but Ford is borrowing the technology for car manufacturing (one assumes some small parts).

 There's even a printed full size room, with a huge number of elements. I suppose it's more fun than going to Ikea, but it's probably not as cheap. NASA has helped create a 3D-printed pizza — you can sense the astronauts' priorities!

Clearly, we are going to have fun with 3D printing, and old boundaries on imagination are being shattered. For me, that's a lot more interesting than the case color of the latest smartphone! (Hmm, what color do I want to print today's case?)

41 comments on “3D Printing: Abuses & Odd Uses

  1. Jamescon
    October 23, 2013

    Jim. The subject of 3D printers and guns came up in the discussion surrounding Susan's blog about the new industrial revolution as well. At the risk of being repetitive, I think the talk about making guns does a disservice to the real potential for 3D printing, even if it is used only for prototypes. You're right, the guns that are being discussed are just as likely to fall apart on first use as to be truly operational. Someone with decent machine skills probably could build something more effective.

    Let's keep our focus on the real benefits of 3D printing, whether it is for medical devices, prototype new products, or something we haven't dreamed up yet. Good blog.

  2. JimOReilly
    October 23, 2013

    @JIMC, you are so right. The message on the gun was for those intrepid souls who are tempted to try for a Darwin Award!

    US Senators shouldn't get excited. There are plenty of other guns around!

  3. Daniel
    October 23, 2013

    “Medicine is also hitting home runs with the approach. Artificial organs are being printed already, using living cells as the ink. This is just within four years of looking at approaches. Just imagine what the future holds.'

    Jim, its very nice, if we are able to print medicine too.

  4. ahdand
    October 23, 2013

    @Jacob: Good point but Im not sure how effective it will be to print medicine and gain the medical value out of it to the patients.

  5. Anand
    October 24, 2013

    A group of dentists is making a custom printed toothbrush.

    @Jim, thanks for the post. I never knew that dentists are printing custom printed toothbrush. I think this technology will definitely help the users to protect their teeth better. I am sure we will find many more such applications of 3D printers.

  6. prabhakar_deosthali
    October 24, 2013

    To me this 3D printing technology is nothing but a 3 axis robotics packaged in a convenient way.  The key to getting what you want from a 3D printer lies in the INK that yiu use .

    For the real machines to come out of a 3D printer we would need molten metal as ink , I guess.

    But made to order dentures is something practical. Also making customized medicine tablets by your family doctor also makes sense, and creating those prosthetic is also something which may benefit a many.

     

  7. Hailey Lynne McKeefry
    October 24, 2013

    @Jim, it's interesting that you brought up the subject of guns. I was recently watching an episode of a TV crime show (It escapes me at the moment which one) and a witness was killed while sequestered in the police station. It turns out that the evidence room technician was hired by teh bad guys to use a 3D printer also in evidence to print the gun and off the guy. I know its far fetched, but it goes to show it's hitting corporate consciousness. Does anyone else have media or real world examples of this?

  8. Hailey Lynne McKeefry
    October 24, 2013

    @Jim, I agree that we don't want to focus on the gun aspect, but awareness is a good thing too. I don't think this threat ofa problem will slow things down–but perhaps 3D printer makers will find ways to help minimize the threat… I wonder if there's a technology answer to that. ANyone heard of such a thing?

  9. RyanL
    October 24, 2013

    The most exciting thing for me with all the 3D printing possibilities is sustainable space exploration. An industrial 3D metal printer could serve as an on the spot repair facility when you can't wait for UPS:SPACE to overnight that coupling you need to keep from losing your atmosphere. A 3D medical printer can make transplants and surgeries possible hundreds of thousands of miles from earth. I read they even 3D printed bricks from silicate moon dust making it possible to ship up a few printers with which to build the very buildings we could live in up there with native materials. The possibilities of reaching farther into the stars are more of a possibility with the future of 3D printing.

  10. JimOReilly
    October 24, 2013

    @hailey,

    i suspect the first gun-maker to collect a Darwin award will effectively stop the gun thing dead..no pun:)

  11. JimOReilly
    October 24, 2013

    Here's what is probably the first reported crime using a 3D printer:

    http://nakedsecurity.sophos.com/2013/08/16/aussie-atm-criminals-embrace-3d-printers-for-cashpoint-crimes/

    It says something that the Aussis beat us to this!

    This one came close, if only because guns are hard to get in the UK:

    http://news.sky.com/story/1159349/police-find-first-3d-gun-printing-factory

  12. Daniel
    October 24, 2013

    “Good point but Im not sure how effective it will be to print medicine and gain the medical value out of it to the patients.”

    Nimantha, it's a doubtful about printing medicine with various chemical compositions. Chemical compositions are the major components of all medicines.

  13. Daniel
    October 24, 2013

    “I think this technology will definitely help the users to protect their teeth better. I am sure we will find many more such applications of 3D printers”

    Anandvy, I think it's better to print customized tooth than tooth brushes. It will be helpful for many peoples, especially the old aged ones.

  14. SP
    October 25, 2013

    3d prntingvcan be very helpful andcan do wonders in jewellery and tooth business.

  15. Daniel
    October 25, 2013

    ” 3d prntingvcan be very helpful andcan do wonders in jewellery and tooth business”

    SP, am not sure that they can print gold or diamond jewelleries. But they can print the design in common material and format

  16. Taimoor Zubar
    October 26, 2013

    “An industrial 3D metal printer could serve as an on the spot repair facility when you can't wait for UPS:SPACE to overnight that coupling you need to keep from losing your atmosphere.”

    @RyanL: I think a great advantage here would be the ability to print out the tools and small parts only when you need them rather than carrying a whole kit of tools and parts beforehand. This may reduce the weight spacecrafts carry.

  17. Taimoor Zubar
    October 26, 2013

    @Hailey: I'm a little confused here about how good a 3D printed gun can perform. I agree it may imitate a real gun in terms of how it looks like but can it really shoot like a real gun? What about the 3D printed bullets? Are they as good as real bullets too? Seems kind of hard to believe.

  18. _hm
    October 26, 2013

    3D printing is very handy technology. It should be used more to solve unique problems. Will Staples or like soon provide this service?

     

  19. Susan Fourtané
    October 26, 2013

    Taimoor, 

    You'd better start believing because they are real, and they work. In the US they have shot a 3D printed gun already. The bullets are normal bullets. In England, the police recently found a 3D printer that it was being used by a criminals to print a gun. They found 3D printed gun parts, too. They arrested one of them. 

    -Susan 

  20. Himanshugupta
    October 26, 2013

    @Susan, its really disturbing news that 3D printers have been used for criminal purpose. I thought that the 3D printers are still in rudimentory stage but it seems like they are fast becoming tools for daily purpose.

  21. JimOReilly
    October 26, 2013

    Store chains installing 3D printers can be found in other countries. The US isn't the leader for many innovations these days!

  22. Himanshugupta
    October 26, 2013

    I think the material that can be used should be limited to the maximum operating temperature and pressure as post fabrication the material should be cured for strength otherwise the fabricated structure would be weak.

  23. SP
    October 26, 2013

    @jacob, how can printer give gold and diamond jewelleries :-)…with 3d printer good designs can be more productive

  24. Susan Fourtané
    October 27, 2013

    Himanshu, 

    They are not in rudimentary stage. NASA is using them already. 

    -Susan

  25. Hailey Lynne McKeefry
    October 27, 2013

    @Taimoor. i would say the question is still up in the air… certainly you can print something that launches a projectile. At the same time, it's very possible that it would explode into shards. Just this weekend a story hit news in the UK: 3Dprinted 'gun parts' seized in UK raid may be spare parts for a printer (update)

     

    This was a “oops” story where police thought they had found gun parts and a 3D printer–but actually the parts awere extra printer parts. It points though to the concern that is being created…

  26. SunitaT
    October 28, 2013

    Technology will come with its own set of rules and regulations, and those who break the rules, often end of terrorizing humankind. Just as the article sheds some light on a printed handgun, but what if 3D printed fake medicines are mixed in a legit medicine bottle? Or if a bank note (e.g. the hundred dollar bills of plastic money in Australia) is 3D printed, global economy will come crashing down. 3D printing should be licensed and shouldn't be given to anybody with a fat purse.

  27. JimOReilly
    October 28, 2013

    In the end, economics willrule. A 3D printed fake bill will take 90 minutes and cost $100 to print, so that won't happen.

    It's cheaper to buy guns at the pawn shop, and there are cheaper ways to make fake pills, too.

    It'll be a long time before 3D printing gets cheap enough, if ever.

     

    It's more likely thieves will go after high value opportunities like ATMs

  28. JimOReilly
    October 28, 2013

    You have to remember the UK suffers from instituionalized “over-abundance of caution”, with millions of street cameras.

    I've even had soldires point sub-machine guns at me while they checked my luggage for mines. Turned out to be a steak and kidney pudding in a peculiar shaped tin! They do tend to over-react!

  29. JimOReilly
    October 28, 2013

    3D printing using sintered metal and laser deposition are both production ready, as is the lost-wax porcess used in jewellry.

  30. Hailey Lynne McKeefry
    October 28, 2013

    I am sitting in the Electronic Component Industry Association (ECIA) Executive meeting and teh topic of hte conference is “Shift”. 3D printing has come up a  lot. One speaker quoted an intersting statistic: General Electric has said they will print aircraft engines by 2017.

    Thats astounding to me–and says a lot about the quality and strenght that these parts will answer in teh future. Certainly, they woulnd't put printed components in teh air if they are likely to fail, right?

  31. JimOReilly
    October 28, 2013

    These are built by expensive metal rinting machines, so they won't be available on the $500 home printer, but it is remarkable what is being done.

  32. Hailey Lynne McKeefry
    October 28, 2013

    Thanks, Jim, i feel much better about those flying machines now. 🙂 i figured it was very specialized but nevertheless very impressive. it points to an interesting future in 3D industrial printing.

  33. Daniel
    October 28, 2013

    “I think the material that can be used should be limited to the maximum operating temperature and pressure as post fabrication the material should be cured for strength otherwise the fabricated structure would be weak.”

    Himanshu, when it implemented in real time environment, there may be lots of similar issues which are yet to be addressed.

  34. Daniel
    October 28, 2013

    “how can printer give gold and diamond jewelleries :-)…with 3d printer good designs can be more productive”

    SP, simple. The toner must be gold material either in liquid or solid state. In big factories, gold ornaments are making; using various dies (models) by melting gold and pour over it.

  35. Taimoor Zubar
    October 29, 2013

    “..certainly you can print something that launches a projectile. At the same time, it's very possible that it would explode into shards”

    @Hailey: You can even make such an object through basic stuff found at home. I remember doing that in my childhood. It's kind of unfair to blame 3D printing for it in this case.

  36. Hailey Lynne McKeefry
    October 31, 2013

    @TaimoorZ, You make a good point. Think pipe bombs.

  37. Hailey Lynne McKeefry
    November 19, 2013

    Looks like metal 3D printers are on the horizon which will give the gun converation a new direction: http://www.tgdaily.com/opinion-features/81891-banning-undetectable-printed-guns-and-the-nra-dilemma

  38. JimOReilly
    November 19, 2013

    The good? news is that thos metal printers are so expensive that it will be cheaper to go to the pawn shop and buy a machine gun, instead of amking it.

    The guns made from plastics can be detected by XRay. It just needs better software.

    I'd be more worried about creative IEDs using 3D printing. Exploding cigars will be nothing in comparison.

  39. Hailey Lynne McKeefry
    November 19, 2013

    @Jim, i agree with you…it's a ways off. It just goes to show that technology marches on!

  40. matt212
    July 28, 2014

    There are many dentists these days who are using 3D printers during their practice, it makes things easier when you are waiting for new teeth. Combine that with good services such as those you can find on http://www.newteethnow.com/ and you'll get quality dental care as a result.

  41. JimOReilly
    July 28, 2014

    Dentistry is going through a major change because of this. It will be intersting to see if prices drop.

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