3D printing companies from around the world assembled this week in San Jose for Inside 3D Printing, an international conference in its inaugural year. Among the speakers and product demonstrations, a few technologies stood out as solutions to major problems the industry and world face today. Here are a few of the most promising:
3D printed houses
Most 3D printers are built to print small objects just a few inches across. What if you went bigger — much, much bigger? University of Southern California engineering professor Berok Khoshnevis thinks we could build houses and lunar bases with huge robotic systems that deposit material in the same way a desktop 3D printer does. But instead of printing plastic, they’d print concrete.
Khoshnevis’ Contour Crafting system lays down concrete in thick layers, making it much faster than the average 3D printer. Walls can be reinforced with carbon fiber rods or coils and printed so you can easily insert electronics, insulation and piping.
Khoshnevis is also working with NASA to explore taking the technology to space, where it could print landing platforms on the Moon or, eventually, habitats for humans. No water to make concrete? He has a solution: sulfur-based concrete.
3D printers that use paper instead of plastic
3D printer filament is expensive — about $30 for 2.2 pounds. Office paper is cheap and ubiquitous. Mcor decided to take advantage of paper’s advantages and developed a 3D printer that uses paper instead of plastic.
Mcor’s IRIS printer works in combination with a traditional 2D printer. Using Mcor’s specially developed ink, the printer prints a stack of full-color pages that each contain a layer of the eventual 3D object. The paper is fed into the 3D printer, which fastens all of the pages together with an adhesive before cutting out the shape.
CEO Conor MacCormack said that architects, product designers and the medical industry constitute the company’s main clients right now, but in the future he sees consumers being a large faction. The printer can be used to print photographs in 3D. Mcor announced Tuesday that Staples locations in the Netherlands are now printing objects for customers on IRIS printers.
3D printed satellites
With the way electronics manufacturing is progressing, satellites smaller than a box of tissues can be made on the cheap. It’s getting them into space that is expensive, which is a shame because they have the ability to open up space exploration to a much larger share of people on Earth.
Researchers have been working on developing 3D printed satellites for a while now, and with Made in Space scheduled to send a 3D printer to the International Space Station next year, it doesn’t seem that far off that we’ll be 3D printing and launching satellites in space.
Exploration Solutions showcased a 3D printed satellite Wednesday that is about the size of a saltine cracker. Using such little material would further reduce costs by limiting the amount of material that needs to be carried into space.
3D printed human tissue
Most pharmaceutical drugs fail before they ever get to market. Sometimes that is because during testing it becomes clear that a drug is toxic to the human liver.
Organovo CEO Keith Murphy presented today on the company’s plans to 3D print liver tissue, which pharmaceutical companies could use to test a drug’s effect on the liver before ever testing it in a human.
Bioprinters work much like 3D printers that print plastic, as they lay down cells layer-by-layer. Living cells can be printed in a tube shape to create, say, an artery. Gel is printed around the cells to act as support material and is stripped away once the structure is complete.
Organovo plans to begin selling liver tissue to pharmaceutical companies for toxicology tests in December 2014. Murphy emphasized that while Organovo is the largest commercial effort into 3D printing tissue, many university labs are also working on developing technology, so further advancements are imminent.
Computer modeling that emulates working with clay
Computer aided design software is hard. It’s not intuitive for the average user, leaving a steep learning curve.
Leopoly is a free online program that lets users shape existing models into custom shapes. It’s browser-based and allows the user to start sculpting within seconds.
It’s not as precise as a CAD program, but it’s easy to use. It’s not the first sculpting software out there, but it is free. I see myself playing around with it quite a bit as I start experimenting with 3D printing different shapes.