From fully functioning firearms to tiny medical devices, the rapidly advancing technology has sparked a revolution in small-scale manufacturing.

By Michelle V. Rafter, MSN Money

MakerBot Replicator 2 3D printer © MakerBot/Splash News/Corbis
A manufacturing revolution

When doctors in Michigan battled against a rare birth defect that nearly killed a baby boy, they turned to 3D printing and came up with a solution that saved his life.

It is one of the latest and most remarkable developments in a technology that is rapidly revolutionizing how things get produced, who’s making them and what they’re made of.

Medical science is just one field exploiting the new technology. Jay Leno uses 3D printing to create spare parts for the rare classic cars he collects and restores. The Smithsonian Institution uses 3D printing to make copies of the museum’s warehoused treasures.

The technology, sometimes referred to as additive layer manufacturing, works by printing out and stacking material layer by layer. Exactly what materials are used depends on what’s being made, from paper and plastics for bone models or statues to organic compounds for producing food.

While the technology is largely restricted to commercial applications (and high rollers like Leno) today, by 2016, prices for business-grade 3D printers are expected to drop under $2,000, according to Gartner Group, opening the technology to anyone with vision and some cash.

Here are some of the more amazing things being done or envisioned today using 3D printing technology.

Kaiba Gionfriddo plays with the family's dog, Bandit, outside his Youngstown, Ohio, home in May 2013. © Mark Stahl/AP
Body parts

Little Kaiba Gionfriddo of Ohio was born with a birth defect that caused him to stop breathing nearly every day. But in a breakthrough development, specialists were able to use a 3D laser printer to create an airway splint and save his life.

Kaiba was born with an incompletely formed bronchus, one of the two airways that branch off the windpipe. His parents didn’t know until he almost died when he stopped breathing at a restaurant when he was 6 weeks old.

In a single day, doctors “printed out” 100 tiny tubes, using computer-guided lasers to stack and fuse thin layers of plastic, according to The Associated Press. Acting with special permission from the Food and Drug Administration, they implanted one of the tubes in Kaiba, the first time this has been done.

Now nearly 19 months old, Kaiba has not had a single breathing crisis since coming home a year ago. “He’s a pretty healthy kid right now,” said Dr. Glenn Green, a pediatric specialist at C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, where the operation was done.

A woman holds a piece of chocolate made in the shape of her face in Tokyo in February. © Issei Kato/Reuters/Corbis

Pizza from a printer? It could happen. Texas-based Systems and Materials Research Corp. got a $125,000 NASA grant recently to create a 3D printer capable of producing food for astronauts traveling to Mars or on other long-distance space missions.

The same technology, which builds food out of layers of powdered proteins, oils and other nonperishable organic material, could remedy the world’s hunger problem. “I think, and many economists think, that current food systems can’t supply 12 billion people sufficiently,” SMRC senior mechanical engineer and project manager Anjan Contractor, tells Quartz. “So we eventually have to change our perception of what we see as food.”

3D printed skull © 2013 Mcor Technologies
Bone models

Doctors at a university hospital in Belgium are reconstructing skulls, jaws and eye sockets for accident victims and cancer patients using 3D printing to build models as surgical guides. Maxillofacial specialists use the same 3D models to shape metal inserts for reconstructive surgery.

Both have helped doctors at the Universite Catholique de Louvain shave hours off surgeries, “and that’s a major benefit for the patient,” says Dr. Raphael Olszewski, in this testimonial about the devices the facility uses.

Fluorescence light micrograph of neural stem cells © Silvia Riccardi/Science Photo Library/Getty Images
Stem cells

Scientists at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, Scotland, have successfully used modified 3D printing technology to print embryonic stem cells, a first step toward growing new organs. Scientists modified a valve-based printer nozzle to squirt out the stem cells in blobs rather than a single layer, closer to the way they form in the body, according to New Scientist.

The experiment, art of the emerging field of biofabrication, demonstrates that valve-based printing doesn’t harm stem cells or inhibit their ability to transform into any type of tissue, according to a writeup of the experiment in the academic journal IOPScience.

NASA's Mars rover Curiosity on Feb. 3. (© Nasa/Reuters)
NASA Space Rover

NASA is testing a Hummer-sized rover in the Arizona desert made with approximately 70 heat-resistant plastic parts created by a production-grade 3D printer.

The rover, big enough to house two astronauts on a mission to Mars or near-Earth asteroids, includes flame-retardant vents, camera mounts, pod doors and other parts manufactured by 3D printers from Stratasys, whose devices sell for $30,000 to $50,000 and have been used to make everything from sneakers to motorcycles.

The NASA rover is among the first of what could be many more spacecraft with 3D printed parts. California startup Made in Space is designing a zero-gravity 3D printer that will work in space. The experimental device is scheduled to be delivered to the International Space Station in 2014.

Jay Leno stands next to a Corvette Z06 at his garage in Burbank, Calif. © Sandy Huffaker/Corbis
Classic car parts

Jay Leno is a huge classic car collector, and uses a high-end home 3D scanner and printer to create spare parts that are impossible to find or tricky to have a machinist build. The “Tonight Show” host used a 3D printer to create a feedwater heater for a 1907 White Steamer, oil pan and other parts for a 1935 Frazer Nash and air-conditioning ducts for his EcoJet turbine biodiesel supercar.

“There are cars sitting in garages around the country, and they haven’t moved in years for lack of some unobtainable part. Now they can hit the road once more, thanks to this technology,” he writes in Popular Mechanics.

3D printed AR-15 magazines © Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Earlier in May, University of Texas law student Cody Wilson built what’s thought to be the first 3D-printable gun and put the plans online, a move that landed him in hot water with the State Department.

Wilson’s nonprofit organization, Defense Distributed, removed blueprints for its Liberator gun after the department said sharing them violated federal law. By then, though, the plans had been downloaded more than 100,000 times and made available elsewhere online.

The Liberator consists of 16 snap-together 3D printed plastic pieces, a metal firing pin and a six-ounce steel piece that by law all guns must contain so they set off alarms passing through metal detectors.

Shown above are magazines for an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle produced from a 3D printer.

A snowboard sits in the snow on Eaglecrest Mountain in Juneau, Alaska (© Brandon Hauser/Science Faction/Getty Images)

A southern California company used 3D printing to develop a different kind of gun: a “radical powder gun,” aka a snowboard. Signal Snowboards teamed up with California-based rapid prototyping company Growit 3D on a demo board crafted from snap-together pieces laser printed from carbon powder.

“It’s quite a bit different from our snowboard press, where you’re taking these raw materials and sandwiching them together,” Signal Snowboards founder Dave Lee says in a video recap of the process.

Many typical manufacturing methods remove material from an object to get a final shape. “Here, we’re actually taking that 3D final shape, slicing it into very thin layers, and adding it layer by layer,” says Growit 3D founder David Gurrola.

Prototype of printed house © Architectural Association School's Design Research Lab via Tumblr,

In a space age twist on the kit houses Sears sold via mail order 100 years ago, several U.S. and European groups are working on prototypes of mass producible 3D printed homes. A University of Southern California engineering professor wants to place large-scale 3D printers overhead on home sites that could build walls from layers of concrete. Professor Behrokh Khoshnevis says the system could build a home in less than a day, according to this report.

Last October, a London architect and design team exhibited the Protohouse, a 3D printed house made of fibrous nylon the developers say could be built in three weeks and snapped together in a day, according to design magazine Dezeen. A Dutch architecture studio is working on its own 3D house, which would be molded from sand and a binding agent, and printed in 6-by-9-meter sections, according to the magazine.


If you’d rather not carry your smartphone in your pocket, you can stow it in the iPhone Mashup Shoe, a combo iPhone case and platform wedge sandal created by product designer Alan Nguyen for Paris and Milan fashion weeks in 2012. “I heard they’re pretty comfortable — I haven’t tried it myself,” Nguyen told the BBC in a May 8 interview.

Nguyen works for Amsterdam-based Freedom of Creation, which makes 3D printed jewelry, housewares and other objects.

D printed Thomas Jefferson statue (© RedEye on Demand/Smithsonian/StudioEIS)
Smithsonian treasures

The Smithsonian Institution is using 3D printing technology to recreate some of the treasures in its collection for traveling exhibitions, including a life-size statue of Thomas Jefferson. 3D printing specialist RedEye on Demand produced the six-foot-tall statue from laser scans of the original at Jeffrson’s home in Virginia, Monticello. The Smithsonian says the statue is “the largest 3D printed museum quality historical replica” in the world, according to Gizmag.

The museum created a Facebook page called Smithsonian 3D Digitization so people can keep up with its 3D printing efforts.

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