The Real Uses of 3D Printers: What are 3D Printers Actually Used For?
Introduction & Summary
When I first picked up a 3D printer it was kind of on a whim. It seemed like a cool gadget and I thought it would be a fun hobby to try and pick up, especially because printers were beginning to be affordable. It wasn't until I started printing at home that I wondered to myself, "What are 3D printers actually used for?". I knew I could make some cool desktop toys and little things for the house, but I didn't really know what the practical and professional applications of 3D printing were until I did a little additional research.
3D printing is used for several professional-level tasks, I've chosen a handful that interest me the most and have included them here. 3D printing is used for small-scale manufacturing, can be used within the food industry, can be utilized in construction applications, has medical applications, and arguably most importantly; 3D printing is used for the rapid-prototyping of items. Over the course of this article, I will dive in to the specifics of how 3D printers are used for each of these tasks along with some examples.
It's my hope that this compilation of interesting uses of 3D printers will also help to drive your interest in this unique and rewarding hobby. The more I learn about how 3D printing is changing the world, the more I get excited about projects I can do in my own home.
Small-Scale Manufacturing With 3D Printers
Some people who think of picking up a 3D printer for the first time probably envision their own manufacturing line in the home. "I'll just press a button and print a thousand things to sell!!!" is the general idea. Unfortunately, 3D printing is just not good for this purpose. It's extremely slow, so the time taken to produce something in high volumes for sale just does not make economic sense. This is true not just for home 3D printers, but most 3D printers in general, even at a professional-grade.
That said, 3D printing is good for manufacturing one-off, unique items one at a time. For example, a business that creates custom bobble-heads could benefit greatly from a high-quality 3D printer. Creating a unique bobble-head via a method like injection molding plastic would be incredibly expensive. A 3D printer however, might be a little expensive but is still much more affordable and takes less time than other methods.
3D printers can also be used to customize existing products for a customer. For example, a basic, well designed mobile phone case could have optional customized portions. A user could submit their name or a design via a website. This design would be integrated in to the already designed case, printed, and shipped to the end user. Similarly to the bobble-head example, this one-of-a-kind case would be too expensive to produce using other mass production means, so 3D printing is a good option.
Unfortunately, 3D printing isn't the best for manufacturing primarily because of speed. The two examples above work because they are simple and relatively small. The larger and more complicated a print gets, the less likely it is that 3D printing will be the right tool for the job. Not to mention, many 3D printers do not create the most durable parts, so a mass-manufactured plastic item is best left to be injection molded.
3D Printing in the Food Industry
While still somewhat limited on a larger scale, there are some seriously innovative people in the food industry who are changing the landscape of what can be done with the things people eat. This is one of my favorite uses because it's just so cool!
While there are some experiments out there in other types of food, the current most common use is the printing of sugar or chocolate. By using a customized 3D printer, these mad scientists of food can print complex-looking mini-sculptures that are also edible. 3D printing these food items allows the designers to make unique designs with geometry that couldn't be done with traditional techniques.
3D Printing for Construction
3D printers are a relatively new thing in the construction world at the time of writing this article, however there are some promising projects that use large-scale 3D printers to print entire buildings!
In addition to basic buildings, 3D printers have also been used to create bridges, with interest from the military to build structures out in the field where it would be difficult to get construction supplies delivered.
Probably the coolest use of 3D printers that has been proposed for construction is sending giant 3D printing robots to other planets. These robots would process the natural materials of the planet and use it to create a cement that could be printed to form a shelter for humans that would land on the planet in the future. Basically, these giant 3D printer robots could make a Mars base!
Medical Applications of 3D Printing
There are several cool applications of 3D printing when it comes to the medical field. One of these applications actually is what inspired me to get a 3D printer in the first place!
Medical Devices Made by 3D Printers
There is a lot of cutting-edge research happening when it comes to 3D printing in the medical field. One that caught my eye was studies about a 3D printed esophagus (check out the link for a detailed research article, it's pretty cool!). To summarize, a 3D printed structure called a "stent" could be put in place to allow someone with a damaged esophagus (in this paper's case, due to cancer) to continue to ingest items. The biodegradable printed material would go away over time and allow the patient to heal. 3D printers would allow doctors to create a completely custom stent quickly. This way they are able to tend to each patient individually and quickly, possibly saving more lives in the process.
3D Printed Prosthetic Limbs
Finally, the medical application that inspired me to purchase a 3D printer myself, low-cost prosthetics. I learned about Enabling the Future and became instantly inspired to try and get involved. This organization gets together volunteers from all over the world to design, print, and build prosthetic hands primarily for children. Normal prosthetic devices can be incredibly expensive, and often children outgrow them quickly. Because kids grow out of these pricey devices, many kids have to go without until they get older and stop growing so fast. These Enabling the Future Hands only cost about $20 in materials and can be assembled within an hour once all of the prices are printed. These hands truly improve children's lives and 3D printing makes it possible.
Rapid-Prototyping With 3D Printers
This is far and above the most useful use of 3D printing in my opinion. Rapid-prototyping is the ability to design an object, quickly produce and test it, and then go back to edit the design for more tests. With each design change, the goal is to enhance the results each time until a final part has been perfected.
For example, prior to 3D printing being widely available, a company would have to create designs for an object, send that design overseas, and wait weeks or months for a prototype to be created at the factory. Once they finally got the prototype part back, they would try it out, make changes, then submit them to the factory again for another several weeks of waiting to see their changes in the next version of the prototype.
Well, with 3D printing, the time it takes to complete this prototyping phase is cut down significantly. Now, instead of sending designs and waiting for a physical version to be produced, many companies can simply make a one-time investment in a 3D printer to create the prototype parts in-house. This means no waiting for a factory to create the prototype and spend the time shipping it from wherever the factory is located. Instead, a company can try version after version within a much shorter time on their own 3D printer. Then they can just send off the final design to the factory for one last check to make sure the final part is absolutely perfect. This reduces a process that could have taken months upon months, and can possibly bring it down to just a few weeks!
Thanks for Reading
Thank you for checking out this article about what 3D printers are used for. Hopefully it will inspire you about the possibilities of 3D printing the way it does for me. While home 3D printers can have some practical uses as well, these professional applications completely blow me away. It's an inspiration, and really helps me to figure out new and practical uses for my own 3D printer at home.
There are new uses for industrial 3D printers being developed all the time. While often times these new technologies start as expensive, they can eventually make their way in to the home. Who knows, maybe your next home will be created using (at least partially) 3D printers!