Advances in 3-D fabrication enabled some amazing feats of design and ingenuity this year: on-demand running shoes, labware, even body parts.
As with any groundbreaking technology, controversy arose, whether it was over a 3-D printed key that can crack open handcuffs or a 3-D printed firearm that could give average Joes on-demand access to guns–no five-day waiting period required.
But even the projects that raised ethical questions or exposed our legal framework to gaping gray areas are, in their own ways, technological triumphs–proof of 3-D printing’s vast potential and popular momentum. Frankly, we can’t wait to see what 2013 has in store for us. Until then, click though the gallery link below for a quick spin through the best and most mind-blowing 3-D printed objects we saw in 2012.
A Lighter, Swifter Running Shoe That’s ‘Designed To Win’
“Designed to Win” is the brand name of French engineering and design student Luc Fusaro’s 3-D-printed running shoe. It’s also an apt descriptor of this custom-fabricated concept that can theoretically shave 3.5 percent off a sprinter’s time–enough to change his or her position on the medal podium. Using a nylon polymer powder and an additive manufacturing process known as selective laser sintering, Fusaro can turn a 3-D scan of an athlete’s foot into a custom-fitting, bare-bones athletic shoe with no extraneous material and a super-lightweight structure. The finished product weighs just 96 grams, or less than three-quarters the weight of Nike’s super-minimalist Mayfly racing shoe. By the time the summer Olympics come back around in 2016, this kind of technology could be everywhere.
The World’s First 3-D Printed Jaw Implant
Bio-printing–the 3-D printing of biological tissues–is one of the most exciting spaces where this new kind of fabrication has seemingly limitless room to grow. And while we didn’t quite get to that 3-D printed liver or kidney that is the holy grail of bioprinting this year, we did see 3-D printing make an impact on reconstructive medical science via the first-ever 3-D fabricated jaw transplant (technically the procedure happened in 2011, but it wasn’t announced until earlier this year). An 83-year-old European woman who had developed a chronic bone infection in her entire lower mandible had her natural jawbone swapped for a new laser-sintered titanium one custom fabricated not merely to match her biological jaw but specially designed with dimples to increase surface area and holes and grooves to promote muscle and nerve attachment. One four-hour surgery later (one-fifth the time a conventional reconstructive surgery would’ve taken) she was fitted with her brand new, custom-built jaw. She spoke her first words with it while still in post-op recovery, and went home four days later.
Brass Knuckles On Demand
Then there’s the…how should we put it…shadier side of 3-D printing. With the ability to more or less create anything you can design in a CAD program (limited by material and complexity, of course, though those limitations are stretching and breaking all the time), objects are bound to emerge that some people might find of dubious–or even detrimental–societal value. Like 3-D printed brass knuckles, for instance, which aren’t really brass but plastic (and still plenty painful to get decked with, we imagine). According to a Bloomberg Businessweek story, some 14-year-old future engineering geniuses are printing them just for fun. Kids these days. Let’s hope they don’t turn to making more serious weapons.
The 3-D Printed Handgun
And then there’s Defense Distributed, a.k.a. the Wiki Weapon Project, the initiative cooked up by a University of Texas Law student and some of his buddies to 3-D print a working firearm. The group’s Indiegogo funding campaign was shut down in the early going and 3-D printer maker Stratasys revoked the lease on Wiki Weapon’s fabricator at one point, but through Bitcoin and other technology providers they’ve managed to keep the project alive and funded. Last we saw the Defense Distributed boys out on the range, they were firing an AR-15 rifle with a 3-D printed lower receiver–not of their own design, but one that is already available out there on the Web. They managed to get six rounds off before the plastic component broke, but they learned a bit about recoil and stress as they pertain to 3-D printed plastic in the process. These guys seem pretty serious about bringing their own, freely distributed, publicly available printable firearm design into being relatively soon, which could make 2013 an interesting year in terms of ethics and legal infrastructure that are scrambling to keep up with accelerating 3-D fabrication technologies.
The 3-D Printing Photo Booth Of The Future
One of the more quirky and consumer-friendly applications of 3-D technology came to us via a Japanese exhibit providing a glimpse of the photo booth of the future. Rather than providing the usual short reel of head shots, this imaging booth takes 3-D scans of visitors and then turns that data into a 3-D printed figurine. It’s you, in three dimensions.
Print A House, Or An Entire Neighborhood
This one is a bit of a stretch since we didn’t actually get to see a finished product printed this year, but the concept was cool (and feasible) enough to warrant mention here. A University of Southern California professor has devised a layered fabrication method he calls Contour Crafting that he believes could be used to print entire buildings. Professor Behrokh Khoshnevis isn’t the first person to suggest 3-D printing structures like this, but his method is novel in that it would also add plumbing, electrical wiring, and other infrastructure as the structure is built, layer by layer, from the ground up. The technology could be used for rapidly-deployable emergency housing, he says, but could someday also be used to generate luxury, built-to-spec homes.
Labware Printed To Spec
University of Glasgow chemist Leroy Cronin was growing frustrated with the glassware in his lab. The standardized stuff often wasn’t exactly what he needed to execute an experiment the way he had designed it, and the result was less-than-perfect experimentation under less-than optimal conditions. So he teamed with a 3-D printing specialist to create what he now calls “reactionware”–3-D printed labware fabricated from conventional silicone-based sealant (the kind you might buy at a hardware store to seal up a bathroom). Now he can print exactly the vessels he needs for any given experiment, as well as take better advantage of other technologies, like sensors that he can print right into the sidewalls of his lab containers.
Hacking Handcuffs With 3-D Printed Keys
At a New York hacker conference back in July, a German security consultant known only as “Ray” made something of a mockery of one of law enforcement’s most important accoutrement: the handcuff. Using plastic handcuff keys that he printed from CAD files on a 3-D fabricator, he wowed the crowd be easily popping open sets of cuffs designed by multiple European security firms, highlighting the potential for foul play inherent in a technology that makes the sharing of physical objects so simple. Criminals have long made handcuff keys, but doing so required getting one’s hands on an actual key and creating a duplicate in a metal shop. With 3-D printing, you just need a digital file–easily shared and duplicated. The capacity to subvert the law is but a mouse click away.