The future is now. Micro-manufacturing is possible in a way that we had only dreamed of prior to 2013, and it’s happening because of affordable 3D printers.
Let’s look back at the nine most imaginative uses of 3D printing we saw this year.
1. Race Car. Forty Chinese students from Changsa University’s School of Automobile and Mechanical Engineering built a car to compete in the Formula Student China races, and they used 3D printing to make the steering wheel and the air intake system. Digital fabrication permitted the students to model parts in a computer and then simply send the parts to the 3D printer, rather than having to manufacture many small parts individually.
2. Infinite Sisu. An iPad stand in the image of a man, supporting a weight far greater than you’d think he should be able to, was crafted by SaGa Design out of polished, white nylon plastic. Its symbolic design turns an everyday device into a reminder of the value of determination against odds that may appear to be insurmountable.
3. Rocket Parts. NASA is currently testing—with amazing results—components of rockets that are printed rather than traditionally manufactured. The potential for lowering costs and improving performance is … well ... out of this world.
4. Minimalist Mechanical Clock. The components of this clock took the designers at The Bartlett Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis at University College London four days to print, and the clock needs to be wound every other day, but this cool timepiece is composed entirely of printed materials and keeps accurate time. All the moving parts are a great demonstration of the high degree of accuracy that can be produced by 3D printers.
5. Gear Wraps. Small, lightweight cable wraps keep charging cables, earbuds and USB cables organized for folks on the go. Gear Wraps, from designer Eddie Licitra, can be printed in a variety of materials at varying costs—from inexpensive, flexible nylon to detailed plastic that’s firmer and has a rubbery feel to bronze-infused stainless steel, you can select your preferred raw material and have a cable wrap crafted just for you.
6. Bionic Ear. Princeton University has created an admittedly creepy looking but amazing bionic ear that fuses the organic and the synthetic in a way that’s mind-blowing. This device can even extend auditory abilities beyond normal human hearing; the prototype picks up radio waves, for example.
7. The Beest. All I can say is, wow! Even Erichsen, a 3D-designer and inventor, created a hand-cranked power generator made of printed components. Imagine the possibilities when you can create the means to generate your own power.
8. The Airbike. Lightweight, strong and infinitely customizable, the Airbike is a prototype of a zero-maintenance bike that’s made of nylon strong enough to replace steel or aluminum. The bike, created by EADS Group (European Aerospace and Defense), is actually “grown” using powder in a process that’s very similar to 3D printing, a process that's far more efficient than traditional manufacturing and produces virtually zero waste.
9. Aston Martin. A 1961 Aston Martin DB4, to be precise. Since only 1,200 models of this obscenely expensive and highly collectible car exist, Ivan Sentch, admitted 3D printing noob, knew he’d never be able to afford to buy one. His solution? He’s printing one, one 4” x 4” piece at a time. He estimates that he probably has another four or five years to go before this classic car is road-ready.
As 3D printers and the raw materials they use become even less expensive, we’ll start to see more applications for print-on-demand micro-manufacturing. Though a lot of what we’ve seen thus far has been designed to astonish us in terms of creativity and vision, the real breakthrough will come when we see components produced on 3D printers not just for the sake of novelty, but because it’s quicker and cheaper than other alternatives. Those days aren’t far ahead.
Read more articles on leadership.
Photos: Getty Images, CSUST racing, Courtesy SaGaDesign, Courtesy CASA, Courtesy eddielicitra, Even Erichsen, EADS