TechReads: Fabricated (The New World of 3D Printing) – Part 1

Hello World! This 3D sugar printer gets tested by printing messages onto toast, a reminder that the virtual and physical worlds are becoming evermore combined thanks to 3D printing technology. Just what is 3D printing anyway? Authors Hod Lipson and Melba Kurman explore its origins, new developments, controversies and increasing applications in their book Fabricated: The New World of 3D Printing.

3D printing is a technology that takes design instructions from a computer and proceeds to form 3D, physical objects from those instructions. There are two main types of 3D printers. The first kind places layer after layer of raw materials (usually kept in tubes) until the object is materialized. This is the kind of printer that is usually available for commercial use. The second kind of 3D printer actively binds raw materials together using heat or light, sometimes involving a laser. This type of 3D printer is more dangerous and typically is found in industry and research settings.

My strongest lasting impression from this book was that there are many more useful applications of 3D printing than I would have thought. The examples of 3D printed objects that I’ve seen so far have tended to be plastic molds or models – little trinkets and cool figurines mostly with entertainment value. As this technology becomes more sophisticated, other areas where we’ll start to see 3D printing might include:

Custom-Fit Prosthetics and Dental Work

If you’ve had Invisalign braces or needed a crown on your tooth, there’s a good chance that what the orthodontist or dentist put in your mouth was in fact 3D printed to fit you. Prosthetic limbs are also being increasingly 3D printed, and for some people it’s becoming a way to change the perception of disability.

3D Printed Food

Would you eat that ‘Hello World’ toast? It turns out that food is one of the best mediums for testing 3D printers that use nozzles and soft materials. shortbreadMany designers and engineers realized that printing shortbread through the printer nozzles is the perfect way to create prototypes that hold their shape but are easily *cough* disposable. Testing aside, some engineers are also exploring ways to make new candy and other foods actually meant for consumption. A good 3D-printed burger is a quite a long ways off though.


[tweet “Yes, it is possible to print living cells!”] Right now, it’s not so easy to get those cells in just the right place, interacting as they would in nature. Scientists and engineers say they’re not ready to print entire 3D organs (or humans or other creatures) but this application sets off a whole set of legal issues and possible public health solutions that would make any science fiction writer proud. Anthony Atala talks about 3D printing and the organ-donor problem in this TED Talk.

[ted id=1088]

A Whole New Fashion

Talk about accessorizing – it’s now possible to make Do It Yourself not with pliers, but with 3D printers that can produce custom jewelry and other items. The fashion industry is experimenting with new ways to combine materials and fabrics, making things such as this dress. What about a sturdier 3D printed shoe that’s all made into one piece without any glue (rhyme not intended)?  So long as it’s comfortable, I think I’d try that.

Manufacturing New Materials

3D printers are also providing an opportunity to combine materials in new ways. For example, it is possible to combine wood and plastic to create something with a strength similar to steel. It is also possible to create a whole material that is flexible in one direction but not another – so for example, this material could be used in a knee replacement surgery so that a person could flex their knee but not have to worry about it twisting out of place.

With so many applications, it doesn’t look like 3D printing is going away soon. If you’re curious about what ordinary people can make using the technology (or to try your hand at designing something yourself), check out Shapeways, a 3D printing marketplace and community where users design, buy and sell 3D printed items.

FabricatedBookOverall, I would rate this book 4.5 out of 5. The authors themselves acknowledge that it is the type of book that is not necessarily meant to be read cover to cover since some chapters get very technical, so don’t feel obligated to read every page if you’re not interested in learning about that topic. If you want to know how the technology works but not how it’s affecting the market or why there might be legal issues, that’s okay (although I would encourage readers to broaden their horizons). The book is full of examples that show how 3D printing is already affecting and will influence the physical world, and I really appreciated the amount of research it must have taken to find such a variety of examples.

Stay tuned for Part 2, where I’ll explore some of the controversies surrounding 3D printing.

This article is part of a series called TechReads, my new ongoing series of technology-related book reviews. If you would like to suggest a book for a future TechReads article, please leave a comment below – and if you’ve read Fabricated, I’d love to hear what you think!

Alexandrea Beh
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