Additive manufacturing, stereolithography, 3-D printing. Whatever you call it, creating three-dimensional solid objects from digital models has arrived.
Printers that once cost $30,000 are now priced closer to $1,000 and have the potential to rewrite the rules of global manufacturing. The 3-D-printing market, estimated at about $1.7 billion in 2011, could hit $6.5 billion by 2019, according to research firm Wohlers Associates.
Lux Research puts the market at $8.4 billion in 2025, led by automotive, medical and aerospace applications.
When it comes to the products you can create, 3-D-printed guns may have stolen the headlines recently, but the technology has much more to offer—from day-to-day basics to highly exotic.
CNBC presents some unusual items you'll be able to make in the future, as well as some products that are already available.
—By CNBC.com's Matt Clinch
Posted 2 Aug. 2013
This isn't your average ear. It's a bionic human ear that can pick up audio frequencies far beyond the range of normal human capability.
The idea came from a Princeton University team led by assistant professor Michael McAlpine that used 3-D printing because standard-tissue engineering couldn't replicate biological structures.
The team made the 3-D ear from a hydrogel, calf cells and silver nanoparticles that form the antenna. The cells developed into cartilage, replicating a human ear and encasing the electronics.
McAlpine told CNBC that while researchers are excited by the potential medical applications, they are primarily focused on a new concept of enabling augmented capability in even healthy humans. Such a system could be used in conjunction with other printed organs to create a human cyborg, he said, adding that the project is not being commercialized at this time.
The ears, he said, could enable "sixth sense" sensory inputs enabling direct electrical communication with electronic devices such as laptops and cellphones, he said.
Lux Research believes the medical applications of additive manufacturing could be worth $1.9 billion by 2025.
"The biggest opportunity are surgical and orthopedic implants," Lux Research Associate Anthony Vicari told CNBC. Companies such as Oxford Performance Materials have already received regulatory approval and have applying the technology commercially, he said.
It might sound like something out of a Star Wars film, but a Texas company has teamed up with NASA to develop a 3-D food printer for astronauts to create custom meals in space.
Systems and Materials Research of Austin is hoping to design, build and test a food printer that can work in space and can create nutritionally pleasing and tasty synthetic food. Powdered proteins, starches, fats and flavors are added to water or oil during the process.
"The initial plan is to work with NASA and the astronauts, and then as things become commercially viable, we will definitely consider weight loss and weight gain [applications]," David Irvin, the company's research director and lead chemist, told Reuters several months ago.
In the U.K., Choc Edge sells a chocolate-printing machine for £2,888 ($4,373). U.S. start-up Modern Meadow is working on making artificial meat with a 3-D bioprinter, saying on its website that it develops cultured leather and meat products that require no animal slaughter and much lower inputs of land, water, energy and chemicals.
Vicari at Lux Research believes that printed food could certainly make sense in space. Asked about Modern Meadow, he said that by current calculations it could be $66 for a kilo of meat, which is not sustainable.
"To my knowledge, no one has actually tasted it yet, either," he said.
A 10-year old Dutch architecture firm hopes to win the race to create the world's first 3-D printed house.
DUS Architects is printing pieces of the traditionally styled house, which will be located next to a canal Amsterdam. Last year, DUS built its own 3-D printer, called the RoomMaker.
The printer uses polypropylene—a plastic polymer used in everything from carpets to car parts—to create large pieces and even entire rooms of the canal house. Upon completion, the house will become a place where people learn about 3-D printing.
DUS co-founder Martine de Wit told CNBC that the firm aims to open the building site by November.
Is it a car or a bike? It might just depend on what your country's regulations state. It's the Urbee is a three-wheeled car in its second stage of prototyping.
Developers say the vehicle uses electrical energy stored with on-board batteries to power electric motors, and chemical energy from ethanol to power the engine. With the entire exterior and interior 3-D-printed, the Urbee is designed to be the "greenest car on Earth," according to its website.
Instead of using sheet metal panels, which are welded together and finished, this car uses a printer to layer up small strands of whitish plastic to form a solid part, with no waste.
"Complete assemblies with moving parts that are structurally sound can be made this way," Urbee says on its website. The company also says that it still requires millions of dollars of investment to move the project forward, including meeting required automotive standards and safety testing.
"There will always be a market for niche cars," Vicari said. But rather than using 3-D technology to make a car, it would be more cost-effective to use if for replacement parts, molds and tooling.
Soaring across the skies of the U.K. countryside, the Southampton University Laser Sintered Aircraft, originally developed in 2011, is an electric powered unmanned air vehicle whose entire structure has been printed.
The drone has a 2-meter wingspan and a top speed of nearly 100 miles an hour. When in cruise mode it is almost silent. It was printed on a nylon laser sintering machine, which fabricates plastic or metal objects without the need for tools.
This project is led by Professors Andy Keane and Jim Scanlan of Southampton University. The team used 3-D printing as this allowed them to create shapes and structures that would otherwise involve costly traditional manufacturing techniques.
Another university, in Switzerland, is doing something similar. Scientists at ETH Zürich have 3-D-printed drone airframes.
Vicari said the aerospace sector could make widespread use of 3-D printing, and the military could seek to use it. Drones are made of a small number of units and have complex shapes, which suits 3-D printing very well, he added.
Is your favorite ax just not that comfortable for you? Well, guitars have just redefined "custom." These instruments from Olaf Diegel, a mechatronics professor at Massey University in Auckland, New Zealand, are fully adaptable. You can have your choice of neck wood, pickups, hardware, and your or your band's name printed on the back.
The guitars range from $3,000 to $4,000, depending on the paint job and size. Diegel told CNBC that he's working on a semi-acoustic model, and is looking to branching into wind instruments.
These guitars are made using a type of 3-D printing technology called selective laser sintering, which builds components with a thin layer of nylon powder that is fused in the correct locations for that particular slice of the component. This is then repeated to form layers. All the hardware, including pickups, bridges, necks and tuning heads—is "off-the-shelf" and added later.
Texas biotech start-up TeVido BioDevices has its sights set on developing fabricated breast tissue for reconstruction after surgical removal of a lump.
Laura Bosworth, CEO and co-founder of TeVido told CNBC that the firm is working closely with plastic surgeons to address the medical challenges of lumpectomy disfigurement and nipple reconstruction that affect the nearly 200,000 women diagnosed in the U.S. annually with breast cancer.
"TeVido is using the innovative process of 3-D bioprinting to build custom, natural implants made from a woman's own cells," she said. "Few reconstructive options exist for the approximately 25 percent of women who are unhappy with the physical appearance resulting from a lumpectomy. ... As survivors of a devastating disease, women deserve better options than those available today."
Bioprinters use a "bio-ink" made of living-cell mixtures that build, layer by layer, a 3-D cell structure forming human tissue. The company is still at the R&D stage but said it could be doing clinical trials in two to three years.
Though 3-D printing may have become synonymous with guns, Priveco, a maker of adult toys, states on its website that people use should the technology to "make love, not war."
Unfortunately, the company's 3-D products are so amazing, CNBC.com's standards won't let us show them to you.
Priveco has set up a spinoff company, Makerlove.com, that lets people download printable designs.
"We actually offer the designs completely free of charge," Priveco President Tom Nardone told CNBC. "We don't sell the finished product, either—the quality isn't good enough to sell. The only way I make any revenue from the project is by selling the bullet-style vibrator that can be fit inside each design."
This little quacker made headlines in June when it was given a brand-new leg after being born with a bum foot last year.
The sanctuary little Buttercup belonged to decided to do something about his bent flipper and brought printing firm NovaCopy onboard.
Melissa Ragsdale, president of 3-D printing services at NovaCopy in Nashville, Tenn., told NBC News that the only way to get a foot for Buttercup was to scan his sister's foot, turn that into a 3-D model and print it.
Buttercup got his wonky leg surgically removed in February. The stump is fully healed and a replica of his sister's foot fits over Buttercup's knee and stays in place, allowing him to walk and swim.
"This particular foot took 13 hours to print," Ragsdale told NBC, adding that the translucent extremity is made of a light-sensitive polymer and is about as flexible as a credit card. NovaCopy decided to donate the model to Buttercup. It would otherwise have cost about $50.