03 May 2016
6 min read

There’s so much to love about this tech, but we think these are the 10 most interesting facts are about 3D printing. Here’s the key to an endless stream of captivating conversation for upcoming dinner parties!

From limbs and cars, to five storey office buildings, 3D printing has paved the way for a lot of amazing (and let’s face it, odd) innovations. It’s quite literally transformed industries! It goes without saying that 3D printing is going to remain a huge part of the future for it’s applications to medicine, construction, lifestyle products, sustainability, efficiency, design, and more.

3D printing technology works using what’s called an ‘additive process’, which is where layers of material are stacked above one another to create the fully formed object. First, a digital 3D model of the object is created on a computer. Special software then ‘slices’ this model into as many horizontal layers as possible, which can then be printed and stacked, one layer over another, to form the full object. From 3D printing prosthetics for the wounded, to 3D printing race cars to enter the Grand Prix, there seems to be no real limit to the possibilities of 3D printing – aside from imagination!

1. You can 3D print pretty much anything in almost any solid material

You name it, you can 3D print it! If it’s made of matter, you can 3D print it (that’s everything). Most people think of 3D printing being made from plastic, but many new design materials in the expanding 3D printing market include gold, silver, titanium, stainless steel, wood, paper, ceramics, glass, silicone (which is made from sand), and even food (a whole meal can be made from sugars, meat, pasta and of course – chocolate!). Some companies are even experimenting with creating living tissue, having printed a prototype for a human organ live on stage. Australian Ethical invests in Stratasys, a company with a really unique approach that combines different materials to so far make 140 different types of new materials each with a specific use in 3D printed objects.

2. It was born in the 80s

You can now look back on the 80s and remember a decade not just of mullets, shoulder pads, and when Phil Collins released his classic solo pop hits – but also early 3D printing. While it’s generally considered a 21st century invention, 3D printing is actually quite a bit older than most of us realise...

It all started in 1981 with a man named Hideo Kodama, who developed a rapid prototyping system model that used little light sensitive molecules known as photopolymers to build a some fairly complex, layered, ‘printed’ models. Ok so there’s a couple of fancy techno-babbly words in there, but basically, it’s worth knowing that a very forward-thinking scientist invented the first concept of using layers to build a printed 3D object way back in the same year that the first personal computerwas released.

Three years later, stereolithography was invented by Charles Hull (that’s the process of using a laser beam to convert liquid plastic into solid 3D objects). This allowed designers to create digital 3D models and turn them to a tangible object using UV lights. But this technology was still far from perfect, and it took a heck of a lot more very clever scientists to come up with the 3D printing process we know today.

3. Vincent van Gogh’s left ear has been printed

Not that it did Vincent van Gogh much good, but a US-based artist teamed up with a group of researchers to 3D print the ear the artist famously cut off in an reckless show of passion.

Diemut Strebe studied the various self-portraits of van Gogh and then used computer technology to replicate the exact shape of the Dutch artist’s ear. He then grew the ear from tissue-engineered cartilage cells belonging to the Dutch painter’s great-great grandson, Lieuwe van Gogh. What’s really freaky is that the prosthetic ear is connected to a microphone that can stimulate nerve pulses within the ear – meaning that, in a sense, it can still hear! That’s right, van Gogh’s 3D printed ear can <em>hear.</em>

Even though the whole exercise might seem a bit pointless – or a few hundred years too late – there’s some satisfaction from the thought that sure somewhere up there van Gogh is looking down and smiling, even if he is somewhat confused by all the fuss.

4. Someone printed a miniature working version of a drill

Thumbelina could’ve been saved a lot of trouble with one of these...

Source: 3DPrint.com

Perfect for construction workers trying to figure out just how they’re going to make those miniature holes, a man called Lance Abernathy is printing miniature, fully functional tools. He began with a mini drill, before adding to his collection a miniature version of a circular saw.

Abernethy claims he has "always liked small things" and has "created small items" since he was a little child. The idea for a mini drill was born out of purely random conversation with colleagues about power tools. While these probably aren’t the most practical tools in the shed, you can’t question the fact that they do look pretty cool! And who knows, maybe the fairies and smurfs are getting a use out of them when we’re not looking.

5. Someone else 3D printed a full-sized castle

Every man’s home is his castle… Unless he has a castle in his backyard.

Image by Andrey Rudenko @ TotalKustom

If you’ve got a big backyard and feel compelled to fill it with something other than gnomes, perhaps take a leaf out of Andrey Rudenko’s book and print a DIY concrete castle. This Minnesota resident built his own large-scale 3D printer specifically for this construction job, and he was so happy with the results that he went and 3D printed himself a hotel, too! You can check out more of his quirky projects here.

6. 3D printing is helping colonise outer space

Researchers at the European Space Agency (ESA) are already all over 3D printing, thinking of its potential for the tech to make the universe seem a much smaller place. The agency announced in a conference that it intends to 3D print villages on the moon that will be manned by astronauts. These villages will make up a lunar base that the ESA hopes will replace the International Space Station.

Currently, the agency’s plans involve sending robots ahead of astronauts to gather and relay data back to Earth, while the lunar base is constructed. Maybe being able to spend a weekend on the moon isn’t such a pipedream after all!

7. 3D printers are becoming a whole lot cheaper

Commercial 3D printers used to fetch a handsome sum, however these prices have all decreased dramatically since 2010. A 3D printer valuated at around $20,000 back then should cost somewhere around $1,000 today. The RepRap Project is dedicated to developing a 3D printer that is low cost and can print its own components, priced around $500. The Peachy Printer is the result of a recent Kickstarter campaign, and there’s also this 3D printer by OLO – both of which cost around $100 and need no fancy hardware, just your smartphone! With all these developments, it’s going to be a lot easier to convince your significant other that a 3D printer is the right purchase for you next Christmas gift.

8. Sending 3D printed pizzas to astronauts is a thing

Back into to outer space, where cosmic colonies are not the only things a space agency is looking to use 3D printing for. With a hoard of hungry astronauts at the International Space Station, NASA granted a mechanical engineer and tech celebrity Anjan Contractor $125,000 to build a 3D printer to print a pizza to serve as a delicious treat for the astronauts. Build it he did, and you can see the 3D printer/pizza-making in action in the video below. We give this pizza delivery dude full points for the idea, and extra points for the execution, and we hope the ‘nauts didn’t leave their crusts!

9. 3D printing was originally just a tool for modelling

As we learnt at the start, 3D printing was originally conceived as a ‘rapid prototyping tool’ to help designers model and articulate their ideas in the concept stage. Now, rather than creating a prototype, the machines are able to create a fully functioning object. Isn’t it interesting to see how much the technology has evolved since then?! It just goes to show, when you think outside the box about an existing technology, opportunities can be limitless.

10. There are some ridiculously tiny 3D prints

For art collectors with not a lot of space, this nano sculpture is sure to fit on your mantlepiece.

Image by Jonty Hurwitz

Artist Jonty Hurwitz and the team at the Weizmann Institute of Science and the Institute of Microstructure Technology at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology created a series of detailed 3D prints that were so tiny they appeared no larger than a speck of dust. This collection of 'nano sculptures' (as Hurwitz calls them) were inspired by the design of an 18th century sculpture by Antonia Canova called ‘Psyche Revived by Cupid's Kiss’. The tiny 3D printed objects are about the width of a human hair, and smaller than an ant’s forehead. You can view them in microscopic detail on his website. The really crazy part? These prints were so small they were lost, which we can imagine must have been quite a disappointment!