3D Printing Developments: Guns, Livers, Houses… Happy Meals?!
With each passing day, rapid prototyping – what is commonly referred to as “3D printing” – is increasingly poised to change the world like no other innovation since the introduction of Interne. With the first printing units, priced under a thousand dollars for the home market, set to hit streets soon and accompanied by increasingly affordable laser scanning, 3D printing may well be the hottest consumer technology for the next decade and beyond. And inventive minds are finding not only extremely new applications for 3D printing, they are finding ways to refine the process to an astonishing degree.
The leaps within just one year that 3D printing has made is perhaps best exemplified by Texas-based Solid Concepts, which last week announced it had manufactured the world’s first metal handgun created using rapid prototyping. 3D-printed guns made headlines early in 2013, with some websites already hosting the files necessary for download and production of the weapons. But those have a limited “lifetime” before literally exploding from the stresses involved in firing a gun. Solid Concepts coupled layer-by-layer building with laser sintering and produced all the parts – with no machining whatsoever – for a 1911 45ACP pistol in just seven minutes. The finished gun has been fired 50 times with no diminishing of capability, holding up to 20,000 psi of pressure with each shot. But don’t expect to start cranking out “Dirty Harry” specials on your desktop just yet: Solid Concepts is quick to point out that the technology used is extremely specialized and out-of-reach for most people. Even so, their gun has been hailed as a fascinating proof of concept.
Meanwhile, a company called Organvo in California has pulled off 3D printing of a living, working human liver. Although much smaller than a normal liver (half a millimeter deep and 4 millimeters wide), the organ – which includes blood vessels for nourishment and metabolism along with the actual liver cells – has proven capable of carrying out most of the functions of the human liver and so far has survived for up to 40 days. Just seven months ago, Organvo had only managed to craft a liver that survived for 5 days. Company researchers are hopeful that the process might in the future become focused and powerful enough to manufacture full-fledged organs to use in transplants.
Could 3D printing be used to build affordable housing quickly and cheaply? That is what Behrokh Khoshnevis, director of the Manufacturing Engineering Graduate Program at the University of Southern California, is saying. At a TED seminar last week, Khoshnevis spoke of a 3D printing method called “Countour Crafting,” which is being heavily investigated (by NASA, among others) as a means of creating domiciles quickly, reliably, and with customizable appearances. And the electrical wiring and plumbing is printed with the rest of the house in the process! Khoshnevis calculated that a 2,500 square-foot home could be “built” in as little as 20 hours.
And finally, fast food giant McDonald’s is considering 3D printing to create Happy Meal toys on-site within its stores. Although the idea is merely that – an idea – right now, it could soon be that McDonald’s restaurants will be employing 3D printing to create toys based on the latest Pixar movie along with their McRib sandwich (3D printing the toy, not the McRib, mind you…).