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.
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?