Rapid prototyping with 3D printers

3D Printer Applications — Where Are We Today?

As tempting as it is to imagine science-fiction type outcomes using 3D printing technologies, the state of the art simply isn’t there yet. In fact, it’s a long way off. 3D printing is expensive—and slow—and 3D printer applications in a production environment are limited.

But there are 3D printer applications that have become today’s reality. Manufacturers are using 3D printing to assist with rapid prototyping, allowing product developers to experiment with multiple designs—quickly and at a low cost. (This has actually been going on for years, by the way. It just keeps getting better.) Food manufacturers are exploring ways to produce gourmet foods using 3D printers, producing food samples in a variety of configurations that allow for artisan design using 3D-printed molds.

Medical 3D printer applications

But perhaps the most gratifying 3D printer application for all of humankind is the ability to design custom medical implants that create mobility, aesthetics and functionality for people who have been disfigured by accident or disease.

One such story is that of a 22-year old Dutch woman whose skull was thickening due to a rare brain condition. This thickening was causing problems with her vision and her ability to make facial expressions. Left untreated, the condition would most likely prove fatal. Doctors at Utrecht Medical Center in the Netherlands used a 3D printer to create a prosthetic skull. The implant surgery took 23 hours, and was so successful that the patient is now symptom-free and back at work.

Another modern day miracle that took place because of 3D printing technology is that of a man who lost part of his face due to an aggressive form of squamous cell carcinoma. When a rapidly-growing tumor was discovered behind his nose, doctors had no choice but to remove his left eye and most of the left side of his face. He was unable to eat and drink normally for four years until a specialist suggested using a 3D printer application to create a prosthetic ‘mask’ for him to wear.

Doctors use 3D printers

3D printers help treat patients in new ways.

A London dental surgeon used the scanned image of the right side of the patient’s face to create—and print—an identical ‘left side.’ Using the printed output to make the mold, the surgeon then created a mask out of silicone.

Not only did this face mask—and the internal structures that were anchored to it—restore the ability for the patient to eat and drink normally again, he now has some semblance of a whole face, as opposed to the exposed, cavernous areas where the cancer had been cut out.

The speed of innovation

While many of the 3D printing applications are still experimental and left up to the imagination of product developers, inventors, designers and medical doctors, what has changed is the speed with which the technology is progressing and the amount of resources that are being invested in it.

In January 2014, a mutual fund dedicated to investing solely in 3D printing technology opened for business. According to portfolio manager Alan Meckler, the 3D Printing and Technology Fund owns roughly 40 companies.

And because companies like these are racing to develop marketable 3D printer applications, 3D printing stocks have spiked in the past few years. (Recent drops may be a correction of the over-zealousness of investors who were overly confident of the imminence of mainstream applications.)

But there is no doubt that the 3D printing industry is on a growth trajectory. While history is littered with technology fads that have faded quickly, 3D printing has been around since the early 1980’s. And the industry has seen an increase in applications, awareness and pervasiveness in recent years that portend more good things to come.

Mary Follin, Lehrmitt Associates Marketing

Leave a comment! Where is your company with regards to 3D printer applications?


3D Printing Tells a Story. Yours.

As mankind plods determinedly into the future, scientists, engineers, philosophers and ethicists all agree that the distinction between ‘human’ and ‘machine’ is taking a turn. Human beings are plugging into technology and installing bionic body parts at an increasing rate, and (if you squint) you can see a not-so-distant future where these technologies will integrate into body and mind in a more seamless way.

Stanley Kubrick's Hal the Computer

Stanley Kubrick’s Computer—Hal

Cyborg, if you will.

But sometimes, rather than man chasing technology, it feels like machines are reaching out to us. (This is the subtle nature of the whole thing, by the way, and how something like Hal can happen.)

Take, for example, this tiny (cute) 3D printer that can track human emotion in the telling of a story and create a sculpture about it. While the kids tell their stories, the printer ‘listens’ and softly, gently sculpts a 3D shape that reflects the ups, downs and soothing stretches of each tale.

Bless its little heart!

And in an extreme rush of anthropomorphism, you might even want to give it a hug. Once we’ve put our handprint on an inanimate object, we suddenly see ourselves in it. Which is why we surround ourselves with spaces and things that help us tell everybody who we are.

Since the time when prehistoric man began carving on cave walls with rocks and sticks, we’ve been using whatever’s handy for self-expression. And emerging technologies are no exception.

Why should they be?

3D printing and self-expression

3D printing is opening up all kinds of options for creating products that please consumers and help them look different from everybody else.

What 3D printing technology can do is create choices for product design that—beginning with the prototyping stage—gives companies significantly more workable ideas to choose from. In the design stage, visionaries can come up with a myriad of designs and integrate them more easily into the basic product. And in the final stage—where Jane and Joe consumer are using, looking at or gifting the real thing—each person can enjoy a self-styled look and feel.

Product differentiation

3D printing can make your product stand out.

Custom 3D printing options at the retail level are already in the works at some forward-thinking enterprises. This is good news for us at Lehrmitt Associates, as we specialize in embossed surface textures for consumer products.

Since 3D printing technology has made it possible—and cost-effective—for manufacturers to add cool ‘skins’ to cell phone covers, make-up compacts, light switch plates—and even gun stocks—we envision a world where everybody can pick their own designs for the stuff they buy.

What’s coming in custom 3D printing

Picture this. You and your friend walk into your neighborhood packing and shipping store with your boring, plain-old cell phone cases. OK, maybe yours is decorated in a cool faux leather print. And hers is hot pink with purple flowers.

But could you tell them apart in the dark?

Now back to that store. You swipe your credit card through a reader on this metal box that looks a little like a microwave. A menu pops up (on the front of the box, maybe?) and you choose from a list of products. Let’s go with the cell phone cover. Then you pick the embossed surface you want.

Hit the button, and within a short period of time, you print out a textured cell phone cover with an embossed lizard skin surface that is really, really cool.

It’s so you.

And just as you are turning to leave, you swear you hear the printer say something like this: “I am putting myself to the fullest possible use, which is all I think that any conscious entity can ever hope to do.”

Or maybe it was Hal who said that. But you get the idea.

Mary Follin, Lehrmitt Associates Marketing

Leave a comment! What are some of the ways you are using 3D printing technology?

3D Printer Chocolates Don’t Taste Like Paper

If you find yourself wondering ‘How do they DO that?’ when you hear about 3D printers making chocolate, you wouldn’t be alone. Maybe your mind jumps to the food replicator on the Starship Enterprise. (Does the stuff just come out of thin air?) Or perhaps you imagine the Keebler elves inside their hollow tree. Somebody’s got to be in there making those chocolates appear like magic.

Box of chocolates

Redoute’s roses in chocolate

But most likely, you know there has to be a logical explanation. You’re just not quite sure what it is.

Printing food is an emerging technology that portends a future with some pretty interesting-looking things for us to eat. By using 3D technology, food shape is limited only by the imagination and the physical attributes of the ingredients when they’re combined through the printing process.

For example, take a look at these interesting, edible shapes. Notice how the sugar cubes have a carved-out, sculpted look. Because of the way a 3D printer prints, food can have ‘holes’ in places it never could before. (Aren’t those lacey corn chips gorgeous?)

How a 3D printer creates cool-looking food

The actual process is surprisingly simple. You just load up the printer ‘capsules’ with each ingredient, fit them into the printer and hit the print button.

It’s pretty amazing to watch the printer ‘build’ your snack, layer by layer. At least, at first. Since it takes about an hour to print a vertical inch, you might tire of that excitement. And you’ll want to start the whole thing long before you’re hungry. Or old, if you’re planning to rely on a printer for your sustenance should you travel to say, Mars. (Which is one application being seriously considered—and funded— by NASA.)

Here’s how it works. The separate ingredients are forced through syringe-type ‘jets’ that look more like a perfect pastry bag at work. First the bottom layer is squeezed onto the printer platform, then the next—and so on. Back and forth. Back and forth. Not much to look at, but because of the layering technology, the jets can ‘skip’ parts and create holes through the center of the food, thus creating lace, latticework and hollowed-out eyes on snowmen cookies.

In other words, what comes out of the printer is a proverbial visual feast.

Are we there yet?

Technology moves so fast, by the time most people even become aware of the concept, there will likely be a wide selection of commercially available printed chocolates to choose from. Chocolate manufacturers are already testing recipes and designs for new chocolates and printing custom candies in small batches.

Chocolate roses

The inspiration for our chocolate roses

We’re pretty excited about this, because we’ve been creating some 3D chocolate designs of our own.

For foodies who want to enjoy the art before taking that first bite, we’ve created beautifully sculpted roses, modeled after Pierre-Joseph Redoute’s roses. We’re having fun dreaming up images that no one has ever seen on chocolate before.

Take a look at what we’ve come up with!

How can I get some?

Once you hear about it, you can’t help but want to try it. Of course, you could buy a chocolate printer. 3D Systems offers the ChefJet for roughly $5,000, which comes with a digital cookbook and easy-to-use ChefJet software. Or for about the same amount of money you can buy the Choc Creator V1 from Chocedge.

But if you want someone else to print your chocolates for you, you might have to wait. Piq Chocolates offers custom 3D printed chocolates, but they imply on their website that they can only handle a limited number of orders. And PrintCandies does just what its name says; they print custom logos and messages on candies, but you need to place a big order. (And if you’re one of those manufacturers experimenting with 3D chocolate design, talk to us! We’re quite good at it.)

‘Waiting’ appears to be the current state-of-the-art in the 3D printing world. The printing process is slow, and printed food is not yet widely available.

For now.

Go ahead and start salivating; printed chocolates are coming soon. Most likely to a store near you.

-Mary Follin, Lehrmitt Associates Marketing

Have you ever tasted printed food? Tell us about it! Leave a comment.